Staying in shape as a traveler is a challenge: space, time, equipment and money are all of concern. It is hard to strictly manage a diet when you are at the whim of what you can find to eat, and don’t get me started on the extortionist prices charged my gyms for single-visits. After much trial and error, though, I have developed a number of strategies to keep in shape despite these constraints.
Most of the time I tend to travel by staying in an apartment for a month or more, but sometimes I spend days or weeks on end moving between hostels. Perhaps you have heard of systems like the hotel room workout. Well, a hostel presents an even larger challenge because there is generally no private space at all, so you cannot realistically get a workout in without disturbing your neighbors. Sometimes you are fortunate in hostels and there is a kitchen available so you can cook, and sometimes not. All in all, the challenges may seem large, but there are some very simple solutions.
Even if you have a kitchen available in a hostel, you will probably not have sufficient refrigerator space to hold the ingredients (vegetables, meat, etc) required for a healthy home-cooked diet. You could go out to eat all the time, but this quickly adds up in price. Plus, the temptations are large when you eat out, and even the better options are not always exceedingly healthy (I cannot count how many times I’ve ordered a salad to find it loaded with dressing, fried meat, croutons, etc).
So the first thing I do is to pre-cook some meals to take with me wherever I am going and put them in Tupperware or plastic bags (as I did with the most recent Travel on Minimum Wage experiment). This can typically last me 1-3 days, depending on what I cook and how much space I have available.
When trips are longer than a couple days I start to fall back on non-perishable foods with a high caloric density. In other words, foods that I can throw in the bottom of my bag and will not go bad and not take up much space, but will keep me full for a long time. Protein / meal replacement bars are tempting, but they tend to be high in cost and not as healthy as the companies would have us believe – plus I prefer natural foods whenever possible.
Some of my favorite travel foods are nuts and dried meat. Aside from preventing crashes, nuts seem to not cause the weight gain that we would otherwise expect given the amount of calories they have (researchers cannot quite explain this, either). I then pick up vegetables from local open-air markets whenever I encounter them for a fresh snack. Of course, I also carry a bottle of water with me. All said and done, I have been known to survive on nuts, dried meat, fresh vegetables and water for days (if not weeks) at a time. It is actually quite possible to have a very healthy and interesting diet in this manner if you practice.
When I travel from place to place it is often to explore a city or some landscape. This means I am already doing a good amount of walking, but I choose to make it even harder on myself. Since I like to spend at least a few days in each city and I need to work while I travel, I allow myself to explore the city slowly and stop at coffee shops to work every so often. I only tend to walk around the city for a few hours at a time, and when I do so I load myself up.
First up is my backpack, which contains not only my (heavy) laptop, study materials (for working on a foreign language), SLR camera, food and water but also plenty of other odds and ends as well. All said and done, I carry an extra 20 kg (44 lbs) on my back. I also sometimes wear 1kg (2.2 lbs) weights on my ankles (the kind you see in aerobics classes) while walking around. This may not seem like much, but given how far your feet travel each time you take a step it adds up very quickly.
By walking around and taking breaks at cafes to work, I essentially get “free” exercise while I explore a city and continue with my standard work routine. Fully loaded, I am sore all over after a single day of exploration. My back and abs get tired from carrying the backpack, my legs from the walking.
When I am on the road for a while or I want a more complete workout, I have developed exercise techniques that can be employed even at a hostel. The hostel itself may be crowded and busy, but public parks are a traveler’s best friends. Many parks have swing sets or playgrounds.
The only extra thing I travel with for active exercise is a weight (resistance) band. If you are familiar with working out and lifting weights you know that you can get a good workout with a band. In fact, the extreme workout series P90X even proposes it as a viable option instead of free weights.
So, when I need a full body workout I jog to the nearest park and find a structure to use for pull-ups, dips, etc. The band does a good job for bicep curls and back exercises, while pushups and squats can be done pretty much anywhere.
I own a heart rate monitor as well, which I like to travel with for a few reasons. Knowing your heart rate as you walk around or work out can help you maintain an even workout and quantify the difficulty level (it should be no surprise I am a big fan of quantification!) Knowing your heart rate serves as a great form of motivation, letting you know when you’re not going quite as hard as you thought you were. It doubles as a water-proof watch and timer, which is always handy.
Is it Enough?
In a word: yes!
Doing all of this properly and effectively takes practice, just like and diet and workout routine, but it is entirely viable to stay in good shape (or even get in better shape!) during your travels.
Have you developed similar methods? What does and does not work for you? Let me know below!