Staying fit and making healthy choices while on vacation is and has always been one of the most difficult aspects of traveling for me. And it's one of the most common questions I get.
It's possible that I'm the least qualified person to give this advice, because anyone who travels with me knows I'm always, 100% of the time, guided by food. I schedule my activities around food, visit different neighborhoods based on their restaurants, find culture through food, and may even eat when I'm not hungry just because I never want to leave any corner of a city untasted.
On the other hand, I may be especially qualified to give this advice, because I would never suggest you say "no" to croissants in Paris (if, unlike me, you actually like croissants), Pad Thai in Bangkok, or all the truffle pasta you can get your hands on in Italy.
But life is about balance, and I know that too many overly-indulgent meals in a row can leave me in a slump for the rest of the day, which is the last thing anyone wants on vacation. And I've been on one too many trips where upon returning home, the thought of getting back into shape is simply overwhelming.
As a disclaimer, I am not a dietician, and some of these tips might not work for you or might actually seem like travel-themed torture. I'm not an advocate of torture, especially while on vacation. And personally, if I had to choose between the two, I'd rather have tacos in Mexico than abs.
But chances are you're reading this because, like me, you love food but also care about your health, and believe there must be a way to have your cake and eat it too.
I think you're on to something. And I love cake.
Why a Travel-Specific Health Guide?
The thing is, if you don't have a very strict health routine at home, it's highly unlikely you're going to start during your week touring Italy or lounging at the beach in Fiji. Even if you do have healthy habits back home, it's so easy to leave them at the airport and find yourself floundering (and stuffing your face with plate after plate of creamy pasta) when your daily routine and all your normal foods are replaced by something unfamiliar. I've been in both of those camps before.
Or maybe you're of the belief that healthy habits simply should not allowed on vacations, and the last thing you want to do while in France is forego the pastries and opt for a salad. I get that, too.
But making healthy choices while traveling can become second nature, and does not have to mean depriving yourself of the delicacies of the country you're visiting. What it can do is give you more energy during your long and busy days sightseeing, make traveling more sustainable and enjoyable, and make your return home less painful.
Over my years of traveling, I've slowly adopted certain habits that allow me to really explore, enjoy, and even indulge in foreign cuisine, while still taking care of myself. Below I've compiled some of these habits into a fairly detailed and comprehensive Food-Lover's Guide to Staying Fit While Traveling to give you some effective, creative, and manageable suggestions for structuring your travels in a way that allows you the same balance.
No need to implement all of these tips, or to implement them all at once. But even putting a couple of them into practice and sticking the others in your back pocket can make a huge impact.
1) Step 1: Treat yourself to stylish vacation athletic wear. Step 2: Bring stylish vacation athletic wear with you on vacation.
First things first. If you want to stay healthy while traveling, then you have to make healthy choices accessible.
On a recent trip to New York City, I decided last-minute to ditch my running shoes because they were just too bulky and heavy in my suitcase. This obviously meant I couldn't do much of anything active on my entire vacation, even on days were the weather was lovely and I was really in the mood to go on a run in Central Park. Needless to say, I regretted it and learned my lesson.
To help motivate you to bring your athletic clothes with you on vacation, it's a great idea to invest in some good-for-travel activewear. For starters, some lightweight and stylish running shoes that won't take up too much room in or weigh down your suitcase are a must. These lightweight and sleek shoes from Hoka One One (the black or white ones are my favorites for fashion & versatility reasons) are my current obsession. They're stable enough to wear all day but weigh about as much as a cotton ball.
I've also gotten tons of complements on this Sweaty Betty backpack (I have it in Oxblood with the rose gold details, which is gorgeous), which is great for traveling because it holds everything without looking obnoxiously large, is water and sweat resistant, and... did I mention the rose gold details?
Worst case scenario: you don't do anything active but you're still able to wear your stylish new gym clothes during the day, out to lunch, or on the plane, and won't feel like you've wasted precious suitcase space bringing gym clothes that you never even touched.
Best case scenario: there's a beautiful hike nearby or a great gym in your hotel that you can now take advantage of (and look good doing it). But the bottom line is to set yourself up for success from the get-go.
2) Embrace fresh and simple ingredients.
I've found that no matter where I am in the world, one of the best ways to really explore a country's cuisine is to stay simple and let the staples shine.
Fun Fact: The rapper T-Pain has the voice of an angel. But you'd probably never really know this by listening to an auto-tuned recording of "Buy U a Drank." Personally, I had no idea how talented he was until I heard him sing his balladic rendition of "I'm 'n Luv Wit a Stripper" completely unplugged on an episode of NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts. Go watch it.
Wondering how this is relevant? Well, strip (no pun intended) your food of all the lights and pyrotechnics and backup dancers and auto-tuning, and you'll be able to really taste the core of a city's superstar food staples. No distractions. Just pure T-Pain lullaby magic.
Head to Belize during lobster season, Panama City for corvina, India for Tandoori chicken, or any Pacific island for the juiciest exotic fruits on the planet. You'll find that smothering these famous stable ingredients in sweet sticky sauces or creamy dressings is not only unnecessary, but also detracts from your ability to really taste and appreciate that world-renowned sea bass or that mouthwatering mango.
And to experience the spices, herbs, and cooking styles famous in a country -- flavors and techniques that have been passed down for generations -- you really can't go wrong with a simple meat or vegetable dish. Plain and simple and delicious: make it your motto.
3) Make a short list of local foods you can't miss.
As a general rule of thumb, keep your list to 3-5 different foods. Fewer if this is just a long weekend vacation, and probably longer if you'll be staying somewhere for a month . . . use your judgment here.
Do your research in advance. You can start by perusing this list of the best foods to eat in every country.
It's fine to let your list be really indulgent (but of course, it doesn't have to be. In Bali all I ever really wanted to eat was fresh fish and fruit). Poutine smothered in gravy in Canada? Put it on the list. Francesinha (a dish of layered bread, ham, pork sausage, and steak, topped with heaps of melted cheese and doused in tomato sauce) in Portugal? I promise you'll feel awful after you eat it but still, it definitely should go on the list. Dulce de Leche in Argentina? I'd be disappointed if you didn't.
By allowing a list of 3-5 items, you'll be able to get enough variety of the culinary masterpieces of the city to not feel like you're missing out. You'll also be able to focus your food-related excitement, restaurant planning, and cravings on these items, rather than being distracted by every pastry shop on every corner. Permitting yourself a few guilty pleasures will make it a bit easier to choose healthier options the rest of the time.
4) Choose to walk; forego a taxi or public transportation.
You'll find that a lot of major tourist attractions around the world have non-walking options, such as a hop-on-hop-off tour bus that will take you around London or a funicular that will carry you up Castle Hill in Budapest. But often, these cities, or the attractions themselves, are really quite accessible by foot.
Take the extra time (and save some money) to slowly explore the streets of London by foot, or to make the hike up Castle Hill. You'll not only discover more hidden gems when on foot, like a tiny art gallery that you found only because you took a wrong turn en route to Westminster Abbey, but you'll also burn calories while doing it and get more time outdoors.
So yes, technically, walking to your destination will probably take more time, but it's by no means wasted time, since you'll get to explore more of the city along the way. And traveling is at least as much about the journey as it is about the destination, right?
5) Know your weaknesses.
It's possible that your weakness is just food, in general . . . all of it. But more likely, there's something in particular that's really your culinary kryptonite. Are you a breakfast lover, or are you fine starting your day with just a protein shake? Do you have an insatiable sweet tooth, or does chocolate do nothing for you compared to a plate of salty French fries?
Confession: As I mentioned earlier, I don't like croissants (*braces herself for onslaught of pastry-related hate mail*), so that isn't a huge temptation for me in Paris. Bread and cheese, on the other hand? I could live (and die an early, heart attack-induced death) off of that stuff.
But the truth is, if I'm hungry in Paris and a croissant is set in front of me, chances are I'll eat it.
Don't do that.
Rather than resisting your food kryptonite altogether, which won't work, my advice is to know your weakness and plan around it. Plan for it, in fact. Be selective about the foods in which you'll indulge and refrain from wasting calories on things that you don't really love. Eat the cheese; say "no" to the croissants.
6) Combine sightseeing with your workout.
Consider city walking tours, hikes to beautiful sunset viewpoints, nature walks, renting a bike for the day, etc. Or get really creative: a tango class in Argentina? Surf lessons in Mexico? Mushroom-picking in France? I've even seen cooking classes that take you to the local markets to walk around and pick out all the ingredients, which is nice because then you can reward yourself with food afterward (#questionablefitnessadvice).
The point is, find some way to experience and explore the city that simultaneously gets you moving.
7) Carry snacks.
Okay, this might sound like incredibly lame advice. If you're a foodie like me, chances are you won't want to forego the opportunity to have a freshly prepared, authentic meal in place of a Cliff bar. I sure wouldn't.
But snacks are helpful for avoiding the Croissant Scenario decribed in Tip #5. There likely will be times where you're busy knocking things off your sightseeing list, running late to the theater, or simply not in the mood to stop for a full meal, and the only options around you are convenience store junk food or a high-caloric pastry that you don't even really like. Have some healthy options easily available, like a KIND bar (my favorite) or fresh fruit from a street market, and save yourself for the poutine you've planned to eat later.
8) Share food.
I recognize that not all people are food-sharers. You may be that person. I don't get you.
But if you are into sharing, then split that Francesinha with your friend/spouse/other solo traveler sitting alone at the bar, and get another lighter dish to go with it (see Tip #2). That way you'll get to taste all the things you're little heart desires, without also having to buy new pants when you get home. Win-win.
9) Get a gym membership.
Even if you're only passing through a city, you may be able to find a nearby gym or fitness center that offers discounts or free day-passes to new visitors. One app, Zeamo, helps you find gyms and fitness centers in 48 U.S. states and 16 other international travel hubs where you can stop in for a workout while you're on the move. You can even filter by price, recreational activities, and amenities (sauna, anyone?). Pay As U Gym is another similar app for gyms located in the U.K.
If you'll be staying in any one play for an extended period of time, consider getting a month-long or multi-day gym membership. During my month in Bangkok -- my favorite food city on the planet -- I quickly realized that I had absolutely no interest in monitoring my meals, and that I would continue to consume approximately seven meals a day of white rice, duck with plum sauce, pad Thai, coconut custard, and mystery fried foods from the side of the street. So I ate whatever I wanted, and balanced it out by getting a gym membership for the month at a center nearby.
10) Find workouts you can do in your hotel room.
There are tons of apps out there that allow you to bring the structure and energy of a workout class into your own home. With a detailed exercise plan, pre-set timer, and music to get you pumped up for your day, these apps will take the guess work out of your travel fitness routine.
Even better, many of these apps require only equipment you will likely already have available, like a chair, or no equipment at all, so you can practice yoga, body-build, or take a HIIT class from the comfort of your hotel room.
7 Minute Workout (perfect when efficiency is key, such as while traveling), You Are Your Own Gym (strength exercises using just your own body weight), Seconds Pro Interval Timer (which allows you to custom your workouts a la carte to focus on the things you actually like to do), PEAR (get an expert coach in your ear to coach you through the whole thing), and Nike Training Club (with 160+ free workouts ranging from strength to yoga) are just a few. You can also check out this list of apps that focus on anything from abs, to butt, to raising money for charity.
Whoa, this is a lot.
I know it might seem that way, but don't panic. The key to any effective fitness routine is that it works for you. So pick the two or three items on this list that seem manageable for you to implement during your travels. Or, you may find that some of these tips work better in certain places than others (for example, you may not be able to go to a gym while on a road trip in Ireland, but it's definitely possible to share food with your friends).
At this point, you've probably noticed that this "fitness guide" is less about fitness and more about finding ways to eat your way through a country without completely disregarding your health.
So while I'd never recommend a serious diet while traveling (personally, I think half the point of traveling is eating new foods), I don't think you'll regret taking some steps to care for your health. In addition to health benefits, you'll also have more energy for long days of sight-seeing, discover hidden gems off the beaten path where a taxi would never take you, get a better sampling of the country's freshest food offerings, and have a much easier transition back to normal life at home.
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Have any travel health and fitness tips that have worked for you? Let me know in the comments!