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Staying Active While Traveling: A Realistic Perspective

Dr. Erica Schulte, a clinical psychologist and expert in weight management researcher, shares a realistic perspective about staying active while traveling.

It’s summer as I’m writing this, which, in the academic world, is the best time to travel. It can be tempting to treat traveling, especially for vacation, as a break from eating healthy and staying active. I actually think this can be a sign that the habits you’re trying to create may not be sustainable long-term, and I would encourage you to reassess how to make your healthy lifestyle something you can pursue every single day of your life. With this in mind, I wanted to share some realistic tips for staying active while traveling, so you can find the balance between letting your healthy lifestyle support your priorities when traveling rather than becoming a “chore” to keep up with even when you’re away.

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Decide the Types of Activity You’re Willing To Do

The two broad categories of physical activity are:

  1. Intentional bouts of exercise, like aerobic activity (walking, running, cycling) and strength training (lifting weights)
  2. Lifestyle activity, such as taking the stairs, walking your dog, gardening, cleaning your home, walking around at your job or at school

Research shows that the most benefits for health and weight management come from doing a combination of intentional exercise (aerobic activity + strength training) and increasing your lifestyle activity throughout the day (Opdenacker et al., 2008; Thomas et al., 2014). You can find more information about evidence-based recommendations for physical activity for weight loss, plus two science-backed walking programs I created, in this article.

Your first step is deciding what type of activity fits your preferences based on the type of travel you’re doing. Personally, when I am traveling for work, I enjoy being able to decompress by going for a brisk walk outdoors or hitting up a hotel gym. However, the thought of being in a gym when I’m on vacation would make me dread working out! These thoughts are important to pay attention to, in order to figure out what you are realistically willing to do for physical activity while traveling.

Step #1 = be realistic with yourself and decide what type of physical activity you are willing to do.

Get Creative with What “Counts” as Activity

The media makes us believe that exercise has to be intense, where you are sweating and out of breath for a certain number of minutes and doing a particular type of exercise. In reality, among people who have successfully lost weight (an average of 66 pounds!) and maintained their progress for at least 5 years, most of them walk as their primary form of physical activity (The National Weight Control Registry).

I don’t share this to diminish the benefits of intensive forms of exercise but rather to help you expand your definition of physical activity to underscore that anything you do for activity can truly make a difference.

Below are some creative ideas for each type of physical activity that you could consider options for your next travel. I haven’t included the obvious contenders under each category, because you likely already know that running would be a good form of aerobic activity! There are meant to be different options you possibly hadn’t thought of yet!

Aerobic Activity

  • Find a scenic route in the city you’re visiting and going for a walk
  • Swim in an indoor or outdoor pool at the hotel
  • Tread water or swim waves in the ocean (for beach travel)
  • Go dancing in the evening, or sign up for a dance class based on a local style of dancing
  • Play frisbee, catch, or tag with a friend or your family in a local park
  • Go hiking
  • Rent and ride bikes as a form of sightseeing

Strength Training

  • Find 15 minutes in your day for strength-building exercises you can do in your hotel (for equipment and ideas, check out my article here!)
  • Bring along resistance band loops or resistance bands with handles for quick strength training exercises
  • Go rock climbing
  • Enjoy water sports that require the engagement of your core and arm muscles, like paddleboarding or kayaking
  • Stop by a playground or an outdoor gym station for impromptu pull-ups, monkey bars, squats, push-ups, and crunches

Lifestyle Activity

  • Walk from one spot to the next when possible instead of taking a bus or car
  • Find a coffee shop within walking distance and enjoy a morning walk
  • Schedule a bike tour or a walking tour in the city you’re staying
  • Enjoy window shopping (okay, maybe some real shopping, too!)
  • Take the stairs instead of elevators/escalators (an extra challenge if you’re holding your suitcase!)
  • Walk the airport as you’re waiting for your flight to depart
  • Even scheduling a walking food tour will help you find a balance between staying active and enjoying the local cuisine!
  • Use a pedometer to track your steps, or a fitness tracker such as the Apple Watch, Fitbit Charge, or Fitbit Versa

Step #2: choose several creative forms of physical activity that you actually want to do while traveling.

Make a Plan, and Keep it Real

When you are making a plan for staying active while traveling, being realistic is the most important part. If you set a highly ambitious or challenging plan for your exercise and you begin to not follow through with it (because it’s too much!), you are likely to say “forget it!” and promise you’ll get back to your physical activity routine when you return home.

To prevent this “all-or-nothing” thought from popping up, I encourage you to keep it in mind when you are planning. As you choose types of physical activity to include in your travel schedule, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this form of activity add to my enjoyment of my trip?
  • Would I feel like I am “missing out” on my trip by doing this type of activity?
  • On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being most likely, how likely do I think it is that I will follow through with the activity I planned for this day?
  • Would this type of activity feel like a chore?

Choose activities you feel would add to your enjoyment of the trip, wouldn’t cause you to “miss out” on something else you’d rather be doing, seem like something you would follow through with (8 or above on the 1-10 scale), and wouldn’t feel like a chore.

For example, going on a 30-minute sightseeing walk would likely add to your enjoyment, wouldn’t make you feel like you’re missing out because you’d want to explore, and you’d be likely to follow through without it feeling like a chore.

Step #3: make a realistic plan and then double-check that it truly is realistic using my guiding questions.

My Specific and Realistic Example of Staying Active While Traveling

I recently spent 10 blissful days in Greece with my partner, Jason, for vacation. I was excited to immerse myself in the delicious Mediterranean diet (more on the science supporting the Mediterranean diet and my personal experiences here). Since we were traveling for leisure in a beautiful area, I knew that I was not going to want to spend one second in a hotel gym. Here is how I integrated physical activity into my schedule. Please see that not every day was perfect, but I made an effort to do something.

Day 1, travel day:

  • Walked in the airport ahead of my first flight for 20 minutes and during my layover for another 20 minutes
  • Total active time = 40 minutes

Day 2, Santorini:

Perissa Beach in Santorini Greece where Dr. Schulte swam in the ocean as a practice of staying active while traveling

The beautiful view at Perissa Beach in Santorini where I swam

  • Swam waves and tread water in the ocean for 20 minutes
  • Went on a walking food tour with approximately 90 minutes of walking
  • Went dancing in the evening for 30 minutes
  • Total active time = 140 minutes

Day 3, Santorini (and my birthday!):

  • Walked to get coffee in the morning for 15 minutes
  • Walked to the bus stop instead of getting an Uber for 15 minutes
  • Total active time = 30 minutes

Day 4, Santorini:

Fira to Oia hike

An overview of our Fira to Oia hike!

Dr. Erica Schulte on top of Skaros Rock

Made it to the top of Skaros Rock!

  • Completed the Fira to Oia hike, with a detour to climb Skaros Rock, which took 4.25 hours (phew!)
  • Walked home from dinner for 30 minutes
  • Total active time = 285 minutes!

Day 5, Santorini:

  • Swam in the hotel’s outdoor pool for 20 minutes
  • Walked to dinner for 20 minutes
  • Total active time = 40 minutes

Day 6, Mykonos:

Dr. Schulte exploring the Mykonos windmills

Walking around the Mykonos Windmills

  • Walked around to explore Mykonos Town and Little Venice for 60 minutes
  • Went dancing for 60 minutes
  • Total active time = 120 minutes

Day 7, Mykonos:

  • Swam and tread water in the ocean for 20 minutes
  • Swam in the hotel pool for 20 minutes
  • Danced for 30 minutes
  • Total active time = 70 minutes

Day 8, Athens:

The view from the top of the Acropolis hike

The beautiful view of Athens from the top of the Acropolis.

  • Hiked to the top of the Acropolis and back for 45 minutes
  • Walked back to the hotel from lunch for 20 minutes
  • Total active time = 65 minutes

Day 9, Athens:

Visiting the National Gardens in Athens

One historical stop on our bike tour in Athens

  • Went on a bike tour of Athens with about 60 minutes of biking
  • Walked around two neighborhoods in Athens for sightseeing for 60 minutes
  • Walked home from dinner for 30 minutes
  • Total active time = 150 minutes

Day 10, travel day:

  • Walked in the airport for 20 minutes before my first flight, for 15 minutes during my layover, and another 10 minutes to the train station
  • Total active time = 45 minutes

Staying Active While Traveling… How Did I Do?

Total active time over my 10-day trip = 985 minutes = 16.4 hours!

Remember, I didn’t set foot in a gym once! This was all incorporated into the activities I had planned each day. When I was making my schedule each day, I thoughtfully incorporated some physical activity that would almost slide under the radar as exercise. The only instance that felt like an intense workout was the Fira to Oia hike, which is exactly what I had expected! Otherwise, my activity was tied to sightseeing, swimming, dancing, or walking to a destination– each of which was truly enjoyable to me and I knew I would realistically be willing to follow through with doing it!

My Go-To Gear for Staying Active While Traveling

Part of setting yourself up for success for staying active while traveling is having the right gear. Here are some things I take with me when traveling to make the most of my activity time.

  • I’m a big fan of fitness wearables. I personally love the Apple Watch and wear it every day to track my steps and workouts, but the Fitbit Charge or Fitbit Versa are other common trackers with great reviews.
  • For long walks or hikes, you want shoes that will support the distance and intensity. My favorites are Asics (men and women) and HOKA One One (men and women).
  • For walking around the city, TOMS is my favorite brand for comfortable and stylish shoes. Since this vacation was in the summer, I rocked the Lexie Sandal nearly the entire trip without a single blister! Other trusted brands for walking when traveling are Teva, Merrell, and Birkenstock.

Dr. Schulte’s Summary:

Staying active while traveling is a good test for whether the healthy lifestyle changes you’re making are truly sustainable. You may be surprised by how much activity you can fit into your travel schedule when you think creatively for what “counts” as activity. The three steps for making a realistic plan for being physically active are:

#1: Be realistic with yourself and decide what type of physical activity you are willing to do

#2: Choose several creative forms of physical activity that you actually want to do while traveling

#3: Make a realistic plan and then double-check that it truly is realistic using my guiding questions

Remember, your efforts will always be good enough. Every little thing you do adds up as you work towards your goals, so give yourself credit and stay patient with yourself in the process!

I want to hear from you! What are your favorite ways to stay physically active while traveling? Drop a comment below, and let’s discuss!

References

Opdenacker, J., Boen, F., Coorevits, N., & Delecluse, C. (2008). Effectiveness of a lifestyle intervention and a structured exercise intervention in older adults. Preventive medicine46(6), 518-524.

Thomas, J. G., Bond, D. S., Phelan, S., Hill, J. O., & Wing, R. R. (2014). Weight-loss maintenance for 10 years in the National Weight Control Registry. American journal of preventive medicine46(1), 17-23.

http://www.nwcr.ws/research/

Disclaimer: all opinions are my own and are not affiliated with my employers. Please seek medical guidance before pursuing weight loss or making significant changes to the way you eat or your physical activity routine.

2 replies on “Staying Active While Traveling: A Realistic Perspective”

Hi Dr. Schulte,

I’ve found your article fascinating, and the pictures are lovely. Beautiful view of Santorini and nice couple!

When I travel, I tend to eat more food and rest more than I usually do when I am home. At the end of my holidays, I generally gain two to three kilos, but then I put myself on a strict diet and lose those extra pounds:) 

Next time I travel, I’ll make sure to follow your suggestions. 

Thank you for this useful post!

Hi Daniella, 

Thank you for the positive feedback! I think most people would relate to how you handle vacation weight gain and loss. I hope that this perspective can create a more “calm” relationship with food, so you can avoid those strict diets forever!

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