How to stay fit and eat healthy while travelling
Although I was being conscious of staying fit and healthy throughout the 9 months of my travels, I was expecting to gain some extra weight, because I really didn’t hold back when it came to tasting local delicacies (Save the fried worm in Ecuador, but that had little to do with healthy diet and more with disgust.)
When I stood on the scale after getting back home, I was very surprised to see 78kg, the exact same numbers as when I left.
Staying fit and eating healthy can be a challenge if you are living your “ordinary” life at home. Travelling makes it near impossible: you don’t have your own space and access to a kitchen is often limited. Stacking up food makes no sense, buying ingredients for one meal at a time is a hassle. Your routines are broken, you miss out on sleep, it’s difficult to get to a gym so on and on.
So how did I not gain any weight after 9 months of travel without setting foot in a gym once?
1. Muscle tissue takes more calories than fat.
Muscle is a luxury for the body, it will only grow if there is plenty of energy and stimulation around.
Just think of a sprinter and a marathon runner. Neither of them have any body fat, but the sprinter looks a little bit like a body builder, while the distance runner looks like someone who’s been starving for months. Why? Because when the body needs to keep up high performance after the fuel in the bloodstream is depleted (which inevitably happens in a marathon run), it turns to its own body tissue as a source of energy: muscle and fat. In that order. Muscle is more expensive to keep so that’s what goes first.
While cardio should be an important part of your exercise regime, it should by no means be the only part. Unless, you want to look like a marathon runner.
So what does any of this have anything to do with travel?
The more muscle tissue you have, the more you can eat.
Which is exactly what you need while travelling, because you WILL eat more, trust me on that.
To develop the muscle tissue that will allow you to eat more without gaining weight, you need to do some weight exercises (more on that in a sec). The trick is to assemble a set of workouts you enjoy doing to some extent and will do a bit of them on a regular basis.
Also, don’t think “body building” or anything extreme. A little goes a long way.
Build just a few kgs of muscle weight and you can eat 10-20% more without gaining weight.
2. You don’t need a gym.
Gyms are boring.
For a start, why would you stay indoors if you can go outdoors? Gyms can also be difficult to access and they cost money. You have to find one, go there, get changed, have a shower in a dirty shared bathroom, dress up again and go home. It’s a hassle and demotivating.
I’m not denying the benefits gyms may have and if you like them, that’s just fine. Only, while travelling, you’re much better off not depending on the gym and getting your exercise in the outdoors.
It’s easy to get your cardio done outdoors right? Just go running, cycling, swimming or whatever else is available. But what about weights and sophisticated machines you need for your weight training?
You don’t actually need any of that stuff, unless you’re training for Arnold’s Fitness Contest. All you need is your body weight, which is pretty accessible most of the time. You can do a huge number of workouts without any equipment just using your own body weight. Here is 101 of them with demonstration and an even bigger list with 227+ exercises. Add to that a horizontal bar, and your options are literally infinite.
The secret to weight training is if it doesn’t hurt, it’s not growing. Your body knows it needs to grow some muscle tissue when the existing tissue is pushed to its limits. Lifting heavy weights can easily lead to injury though. The great thing about body weight workouts is you can achieve similar results as with weights, but the chances of injury are almost non-existent.
What I loved about South America is that you can find these outdoor gyms (consisting of a horizontal metal bar for the most part) all over the place. On the rare occasion I couldn’t find one within walking distance, I’d go to playgrounds and entertain the kids and their parents.
The point is, you don’t need a gym to get your cardio and weight exercise done.
3. Exercise can be functional and fun.
Studies on longevity clearly show that people who don’t have access to modern household conveniences and lead a generally active lifestyle, tend to live longer. If you have to wash your clothes by hand, fetch water from the well and pick fruits and vegetables from the garden, you can’t help but get some exercise every day without trying.
While you might end up washing your underwear while on the road, that’s not the best way to get your exercise done. How do you do it then?
When you explore a new place, do it running or riding a bike. You’ll see more than you would on a bus or walking and will have more fun.
In Quito, I hiked up the Pichincha at 4000 meters of elevation and saw parts of the city that I would never have seen otherwise. In Guayaquil, I just went running and discovered the riverside, the most pleasant place in the whole city. In Medellin, I ran up a hill at night through some woods and found myself in some military facility and was escorted outside by the guards. In Valparaiso, Chile, I ran to Villa del Mar and back alongside the coast. It was just beautiful. In Rio, I ran on Copacabana and Ipanema beaches as well as up to the Jesus statue, 700m elevation in 2 km. In New York, I cycled around the city for a whole day.
I wasn’t doing any of that with the specific aim to keep fit and get my daily dose of exercise. I just did what travellers do, explore new places. The little twist I added enabled a pleasant side effect of staying fit and having heaps of fun.
4. The less processed the better.
A distinction needs to be made here.
- The time you spend actually travelling on trains, buses, flights etc.
- The time you spend staying at a given location.
Number one is really difficult. Especially if you travel in less developed countries.
Fresh food is expensive to store, processed isn’t. When you’re on the road and are restricted to the food you can pick up as you go, your options are very limited. Even if you can buy fresh vegetables, you probably won’t have the capacity to deal with it. So you’ll inevitably end up eating some junk. The good news is that you’ll only spend a small proportion of your time actually travelling.
Instead of trying to eat healthy while actually travelling, I’ve focused on eating well while staying put, which is much easier.
If you travel slow enough, spending at least a few days or up to 2 weeks at one place, the damage you do in the travelling periods will be easily offset by the healthy periods. This is one of the corner stones of Tim Ferris’ Slow Carb Diet that he introduces in the 4 Hour Body (If you read the book, please be sure to not follow his advice on cutting certain fruits, vegetables, especially starchy ones and legumes out of your diet. Decrease animal products instead.). His idea is that you need to be realistic about your ability to stick with a strict diet. The question is not if, but when you will break the rules. So it’s better to plan for that ahead of time. Stick with the diet 6 days a week and eat whatever the hell you want on the 7th day.
This works extremely well while travelling, even if 6+1 does not always equal 7.
So how can you eat healthy in a place you don’t know and are only spending a short time at?
Your best bet is going to local markets, where fruits and vegetables are plentiful and ridiculously cheap in South America at least.
While on the road, you often don’t have access to a proper kitchen or you might have to share one with a dozen other people. Conditions are rarely ideal for preparing full meals.
That’s why you need get familiar with eating the ingredients instead.
Have you ever eaten a raw carrot just by itself? Try one today. Dip it in humus to make it more exciting. You’ll be surprised.
What worked well for me is I’d go out for lunch every day, which is very affordable in South America and if you’re smart, you can find the healthy options on every menu. I’d eat raw fruits, vegetables,
eggs, cheese, oats and nuts for breakfast, dinner and snacks. These are very easy and cheap to get and taste much better than you’d think.
5. Refined sugar is bad for you.
I like to approach healthy eating from a perspective of what I should be eating. There are hundreds of things I didn’t even know existed that are very good for the body and taste great too. If I eat enough of this kind of stuff, the other kind, the bad stuff will sort of fall away automatically. There is no room for it.
And yet there is one exception to this rule.
Refined sugar is so bad for you that you should try and avoid it as much as possible.
Without going too deep into what it does to your body, let it suffice that your liver has to work really hard to deal with it. And the way it does that is it turns it into fat straight away. A beer belly is nothing but fat built up around your vital organs, as a result of your liver trying to break down all that sugar and/or alcohol (essentially the same things from biochemical point of view).
Where I disagree with Tim Ferris is fruits. In the 4 Hour Body, he says you should avoid fruits pretty much the same way as you would refined sugar. As a matter of fact, the way your body deals with the sugar in fruits is different from that of refined sugar because of the huge fibre contents of fruits, which slow down the absorption, so it doesn’t hit the body the same way refined sugar does.
The challenge while travelling of course is that most food products you can pick up on the road are loaded with either refined sugar or salt. Try to stick with fresh fruit and veg whenever possible. And when you get a freshly made fruit juice somewhere in South America, make sure to say “sin azucar”.
6. It’s all about proportions.
There is actually nothing you can never eat.
It’s even okay to eat sugar, crisps, pizza, beef, brownies or whatever the hell you want. As long as you are aware of how much of your diet is made up of the bad stuff and make sure it’s the smaller part, you are good.
The challenge really is being aware, keeping track of what you eat, especially while travelling. Forget keeping a food diary. It sounds great in principle, but you’ll never do it for more than 2 days, unless you’re an extreme foodie and that’s your life’s passion.
What worked for me is sticking with the good stuff on weekdays and going off limits on weekends or when I was moving from one place to another.
7. Get enough sleep.
Probably the greatest challenge of all is getting enough sleep while you travel.
How much is enough, depends on you, but I personally don’t believe the “I’m okay with 5-6 hours of sleep…” stories. You might be okay with 5-6 hours. Until you’re not. This can be weeks, months or even years. But your body will eventually demand its dues and the way it lets you know is rarely a nice experience.
If you’re a heavy sleeper, you’re light years ahead of me. I’ve always admired those who could sleep on a bus flight, sitting on a bench and in literally any position. If you know a way to learn that skill, please let me know.
What if you’re light sleeper then and still want to travel?
You’ll need to make up for lost sleep all the time. You’ll need to treat this as a high priority project. First of all, when you choose your accommodation, you need to factor in sleep whenever possible. It isn’t always possible, just think dorm rooms in hostels. Earplugs or active noise reducing headphones will be essential for your survival under those circumstances.
More importantly however, you’ll need to find places where you can make up for lost sleep every now and then, otherwise you’ll suffer. This is not good news if you’re on a budget, but you’re still better off paying more for a days and getting some quality sleep, than saving a few bucks and feeling like a zombie for weeks.
I missed my flight from Mexico to San Francisco and had to take the bus instead. The whole trip came to 35 hours, of which I slept through 0. If I had had to stay in a hostel after that, I’d probably be dead by now. Luckily, I anticipated the whole situation and booked a nice and quiet private room for two nights even though it cost a fortune.
8. The quality of your sleep matters.
8 hours uninterrupted sleep. That’s what we think we need. There is no sound scientific evidence to back that up though. Some people go as far as saying that our ancestors would get up in the middle of the night, live a bit of social life, have meals, sex and stuff like that. And then they’d go back to sleep.
That might be total bullocks, I don’t know. What I’m sure about is you can sleep for 14 hours, but if you’re waken every half an hour, you’ll feel like you didn’t sleep at all.
Again, choosing your accommodation carefully is where you can do the most in this regard. Read the reviews people write and if more than a few say they didn’t sleep well, avoid the place.
Google “improve quality of sleep”. Most of what comes up is ridiculously banal (avoid caffeine, stick to a sleep schedule, get comfortable), but you won’t be able to do even most of that stuff while on the road.
The one thing that worked for me was when I was not only mentally, but physically tired as well, I got much better, deeper sleep regardless of where I was.
Recuperation doesn’t end with sleep. For the mind to stay functional and sharp, it needs to be still some if the time. It’s easy to get caught up in the everyday nuances of whatever it is you are doing and not realize how much you need a break. Travel is no exception.
Planning your trips, choosing destinations, finding accommodation and organizing all the logistics can become a part time job. Both in terms of the time it takes and the way you relate to it. Even if you only carry a small backpack like I did.
You need to switch off. Have at least one day every week when you don’t even think about booking and researching stuff. It’s also a good idea to spend a little more time at one place every few months.
Bringing it all together
Staying fit and eating healthy while traveling is, without a shadow of a doubt, more of a challenge than it is while at home. But it’s possible. Key ideas to remember:
- Get some exercise every day, or every other day
- Make your exercise fun and functional
- Avoid processed foods, eat loads of fresh fruit and vegetable
- Get enough good quality sleep
- Take a break every now and then
I’d love to get your perspective! Has staying fit and eating healthy ever been a challenge while travelling? What are your solutions?