How to be in great shape when you travel a lot

It’s hard to stay healthy when you’re not staying in one place.  I should know; I travel for at least two months out of every year.  In fact, as I write this I’ve been traveling, digital nomad style, for more than eight months- from SouthEast Asia, to Africa, all the way to South America.  Between jet lag, not having a kitchen to cook in, and occasionally staying in little towns with no local gym…well, it’s been tough. 

Nonetheless, I’ve historically managed to stay pretty healthy while I travel.  Where other people usually gain fat when traveling, I typically lose fat.  This year I’ve managed to lose almost half the fat on my body, and gain about five pounds of muscle- while staying in hotels the whole time. 

Ladies.
Ladies.

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about how to get into better shape while traveling.  I owe a lot of it to the advice of people like Will Owen of TravelStrong, but some things I’ve had to learn on my own, the hard way.  Learning the hard way sucks, and I don’t want you to have to do it, so here’s how to stay (and become) fit when you’re on the move.    

Avoiding illness on the road

Nothing ruins a good vacation quite like getting sick.  Once when I was a kid on vacation in Egypt, my entire family got food poisoning and was laid up for a couple days.  It looked pretty miserable.  I’ve never come down with anything worse than a cold while traveling, but it pays to take precautions. 

First and foremost, get your vaccinations.  Check the CDC website to find out which ones you need.  I didn’t get my typhoid vaccination before my current trip because I am a reckless idiot, but do as I say, not as I do, m’kay?  In fact, having written this paragraph, I just realized I should definitely get it done before I go to India in a couple weeks.

You might also want to stock on on over the counter medications before you leave home, particularly if you’re American (many of these drugs are actually made in the U.S.).  Back home, I can buy a bottle of a hundred generic aspirin or Immodium for ten or fifteen dollars.  In many of the countries I’ve visited, these same pills are individually wrapped and sold for more than a dollar a pill.  Seriously.  I’ve seen similar price differentials for dietary supplements and non-oral medications like Neosporin. 

A multivitamin might be worth taking as well.  Normally I’m a bit conflicted on how useful they are, but I think they’re worth having when you travel, since the nutritional content of your food might be very hit or miss.

If you’re in the developing world, always drink bottled water.  Yeah, plastics have chemicals that aren’t great for you, but believe me, it’s better than tap water.  If you’re really going off the beaten path and might have to drink non-bottled water, get a STERI-Pen that uses ultraviolet light to kill bacteria.  Bear in mind though, it only kills bacteria; it won’t remove chemicals like lead or arsenic. 

Finally, there’s one really awesome supplement I recommend to anyone who travels.  It’s a probiotic called S. Boulardi, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever found for preventing traveler’s diarrhea.  It has two properties that set it apart from other probiotics.  First, it’s heat-stable, meaning it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, so you can travel with it.  Second, it’s a yeast, not a bacteria, which means antibiotics won’t kill it, making it a godsend if you ever have to take antibiotics.

How to eat while travelling 

The most important part about staying healthy is, of course, your diet.  Finding healthy food can be a challenge depending on where you are, and in some places, it seems like all you can find is rice, bread and pasta with only a token amount of meat and vegetables added in.  In other worse, usually the challenge is to get more protein, vitamins and minerals, and cut back on the carbs.

If you’re in an area where it’s hard to find healthy food, start taking notes when you do spot a place that looks healthy.  You can also try asking the staff at your hotel for recommendations, which can also be a great way to find authentic local food. 

It also helps to have a few healthy default options figured out.  For instance, right now, my default options are a bag of nuts I have in my hotel room, or stir-fried meat and mixed vegetables at a place down the street.  If I’m farther away, my default is either a salad if I’m at a Western restaurant, or Cap Cay Ayam (chicken and vegetables) at a Balinese restaurant.  Oh, and I don’t worry about MSG.

If you can, buy something healthy that can either be carried around with you or kept in your room.  A bag of nuts from a convenience store is often the easiest option; depending on what’s available and whether you have a fridge in your hotel room, fruit or cold cut meats and cheeses might also be viable options. 

As a general rule, it also helps to get light activity after every meal.  A couple minutes of bodyweight exercises, or a short walk, will activate GLUT-4 receptors and stimulate your muscles to take up glucose, so that less insulin is produced as a result of the meal.  Of course, this often takes care of itself while you’re traveling, since you frequently will be walking around. 

Another good practice to get into while traveling is daily intermittent fasting.  Usually, that means you fast for 14-16 hours a day, and eat all your food within an 8-10 hour window every day.  But when traveling, you need to be more flexible about the size of your eating window.  Some days it may be seven hours, other days it may be twelve, depending on what you’re doing that day and when you’re able to find healthy food.  Flexible intermittent fasting in this matter is a great way to control calories while also improving the quality of the food you eat.

Finally, practice the 2/3 rule.  Make an effort to eat healthy and keep carbs low in two out of three meals that you eat, but allow yourself more flexibility with the other one third of your meals.  You’re traveling after all, and you do want to try all the local cuisine.  Most people find they prefer to stay disciplined for breakfast and lunch, and have more flexibility at dinner, but again, since you’re traveling, this can vary from day to day.

Working out when you’re on vacation

While traveling, just as at home, you can work out in the gym, or do bodyweight workouts in your hotel room.  If you want to work out in a gym, search for them on Google Maps.  Don’t use Apple Maps, it sucks.  But Google Maps sometimes has outdated or incorrect listings too, especially in developing countries.  Look for listings that provide the gym’s hours, peak times, and/or a recent review. 

Even if you do opt for the gym rather than working out in your room, you should always have a bodyweight workout to fall back on.  And regardless of whether you’re working out in your room or at the gym, I highly recommend making your workouts short and intense- get them done fast so they don’t take too much time out of your travel plans.  Here’s a sample high-intensity bodyweight workout that’s ideal for travelers:

Alternating lunges- 8 on each side

Pushups- 12, with 1 second hold at the bottom of each rep

Prisoner squats- 15

Plank- 30 seconds

Jump squats- 10

Pike push-ups- 10

Mountain climbers- 20 on each side

Move immediately from one exercise to the next.  Complete 5 circuits, with 30-60 seconds rest between circuits.

Just doing that workout every other day will be enough to keep you in shape if you’re only traveling for a couple weeks.  The longer the journey, the more you’ll need to vary the workouts, and the more you

I also suggest doing just a few minutes of light bodyweight exercise first thing in the morning, every day.  This will help set your circadian rhythm (always a challenge while traveling), as well as give your muscles a little added stimulation.  Plus, once you’re in the habit, you can scale that morning exercise up to a full workout as needed. 

Finally, if you’re traveling for more than a couple of weeks and won’t have regular gym access, you should consider bringing along some equipment to enhance your bodyweight workouts.  There are two particular items I suggest: a lightweight jumprope, and resistance bands.  The jumprope is pretty self-explanatory.  The benefit of the resistance bands is that they allow you to do “pulling” motions, which work your forearms, biceps and back.  The inability to perform pulling motions is the biggest disadvantage of bodyweight workouts; by adding resistance bands, you can stay in shape much more effectively without going to a gym. 

Sleeping well- on planes and in hotel rooms

Getting at least 7 hours of sleep a night is vital to your health, and if you don’t do it you’ll feel like crap and probably catch a cold.  But it can be pretty tough when you’re moving between different time zones, so here’s what I do. 

First off, always carry earplugs and a sleep mask when you travel.  You never know how much light and noise will get into your hotel room.  The one I’m in right now stays pretty dark, but the air conditioner is unbelievably loud.

Get as much light as you can during the day, and make your room as dark as you can at night.  Wear the sleep mask even if you don’t think you need it.  Your brain using light and darkness to tell it when to sleep; by subjecting it to extremes of light and darkness, you train it to adjust to the time zone you’re in.

You should also carry melatonin with you- preferably a high-quality liquid melatonin rather than pills.  Now, I normally recommend only taking .3 mg a night, for a variety of reasons.  However, there’s something called the first night effect where it’s harder to get to sleep on your first night in a new place- to overcome that, I think it’s alright to use up to 1 mg of melatonin, only on your first night in a new room. 

You may want to use a smart alarm clock app like SleepCycle to ensure that you wake up from the lightest phase of sleep.  Finally, meditating a couple minutes a day is always a good idea, and will help you sleep better whether you’re traveling or staying at home.

My favorite fitness resource for travelers- and how to get it for free

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve had help from experts.  Foremost among these is Will Owen of TravelStrong.  Will has a unique niche in the world of fitness blogging- he specializes in helping people maintain a healthy routine and stay on track with their fitness goals while traveling. 

I’ve known Will for almost two years now, and he’s my go-to guy whenever I need a bodyweight workout I can perform in my hotel room, need to know what I can eat that’s healthy in an exotic foreign land like Thailand or Florida, or need help beating jet lag and sleeping well in a new hotel room.  I know a lot of world-class fitness experts, and a lot of very experienced travelers, but nobody in the world has figured out the intersection of fitness and travel like Will Owen has.  I want to be just like him when I grow up. 

Will also has a really amazing Premium Member’s Area that I’ve been a part of for close to a year now.  It’s packed full of workouts organized by duration, intensity, and equipment needed- along with videos of how to do the exercises.  It includes meal plans, as well as tips for finding healthy food when you travel, along with recipes for when you’re at home.

The coolest part, though, is the community.  The member’s area includes a forum in which members can receive advice and feedback from Will, along with his community manager and fellow coach, Adam Jackson.  Members can also talk to each other, for fun, encouragement, or advice about a particular place they’re visiting.  And then there are the fitness challenges- my personal favorite is the advanced push-up challenge.

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Will normally charges a monthly fee for access to the TravelStrong Member’s Area, but right now he’s offering lifetime access for only $99. This is the single best fitness resource, bar none, for travellers, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone who travels more than a month out of the year.