Staying Fit While Traveling Abroad – What Works

The way we live, and travel, has changed a lot in the last few years. Whereas previous generations lived and worked in one area for most of their adult lives, millennials are prone to change jobs, and cities quite often.

In the US alone, more than 40% of the workforce works remotely (not in a standard office), and this number will continue to rise as technology removes the need to show up to a physical office. With this extra mobility comes new opportunities: lack of a stressful daily commute, more time spent with friends and family, and the possibility of long-term travel.

With that in mind, there are some drawbacks that come with long-term travel. Basic conveniences like fresh water, groceries, and readily-available electronics are way harder to find in the third world than in the United States. Beyond that, there is one thing that seemingly everyone ignores while traveling: their health.

We’re all guilty of this. It doesn’t matter if you’re a flip-flop wearing backpacker, a distinguished business traveler, a seasoned digital nomad, or a globetrotting travel hacker; at some point along the way, we’ve all neglected our health at some point while traveling. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Travel – whether it be short- or long-term – should make us more healthy, not less.

“Staying fit, on vacation? Surely you can’t be serious!” It’s a lot easier than you think.

Follow these basic steps and turn travel into a force for becoming healthier:

Make it a commitment, make it consistent

When I started traveling a year ago, I made a commitment: I would not stop going to the gym, no matter what. I knew that, if I were to stop going to the gym and staying healthy, I would inevitably slip on other important habits, too.

The reason for this is simple: travel can be incredibly fun but also very random and chaotic. A fitness routine can be the one absolute in your life — a way to maintain structure and consistency and not lose focus, no matter where you are. It’s this structure that actually makes the rest of the travel adventure more fun and rewarding.

The rush of endorphins and positive emotions that come from a solid workout immediately improve the rest of the travel experience. Many people ignore this fact, and simply can’t skip out on immediate distractions (of which there are many). Take a different approach – convert Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) into JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out).

Over the past year, I’ve lived in 12 countries and haven’t missed a week of exercise. But I have missed other stuff: I’ve a handful of must-see-walking-tours, a few big-dinners-that-everyone-is-going-to, and of course, a couple absolutely-f**king-epic-bar-crawls. I mean, passing up on 20 shots of Jager – who does that?

I recall walking out of a hostel one morning in Budapest. As I passed a girl in the courtyard, she asked where I was headed at 10am:

Me: “To the gym!”

Her (drinking beer): “The gym?! Gross!”

Was it worth it? Absolutely. I felt amazing after the workout and went about the rest of my day with a smile on my face and appreciation for the beautiful city on the Danube.

A key component that kept this habit alive was lowering my standard for working out. Despite having a strict routine, I was okay with just getting to the gym and lifting, regardless of where that may have been.

In fact, I visited every kind of gym imaginable, from “prison” style gyms in Bangkok to plush European fitness chains, paying as little as $0.30 to lift and as much as $20 for a day’s workout.

No shirt, no shoes, no problem at the Lumpini Park Outdoor Gym in Bangkok:

the squat rack at the outdoor gym in lumpini park

The squat rack.

the bench press at the outdoor gym in lumpini park

The bench.

The atmosphere was a little more posh at Holmes Place Urquinaona in Barcelona. Swimming in the pool and jacuzzi is not allowed without a proper swim cap:

working out at holmes place urquinaona in barcelona spain

It didn’t matter whether the gym used old tires or fancy new machines, the weight was the same and that’s all I cared about. The gym was my constant and kept me sane and balanced as a result.

Thanks to this consistency, my health has continued to improve while I’ve been on the road. I see friends and fellow travelers ignore this part of their life, falling into the mindset of letting-it-slide in order to “gain travel experience”.

Though I’m happy with this progress, there were a few things that, had I known earlier, would’ve saved me a lot of time and money along the way. Above all, the one thing that makes it easier to stay fit while traveling:

Stay near a gym

This one small hack makes all the difference in the world. It’s self-explanatory, but I’ll dive into why this is so important in just a sec. For now, all you need to do when going to a new city is this:

1. Open Google Maps

2. Type in the city you’re going to visit

3. Once the map is in the city, search “gym”

4. Cross reference the gym locations with what you see on AirBnb, Hostelworld, or Booking.com

(h/t Mario Tomic)

That’s it. I don’t overcomplicate it and worry about whether or not the gym is perfect. Just find one and go for it.

Why is this the most important thing to do if you want to travel and stay in shape?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a lifelong fitness junkie or just getting into a routine for the first time – getting to the gym takes effort. To get mentally and physically prepared for a workout and just get to the gym burns willpower. When traveling, your willpower is already lowered due to culture shock and all the uncertainty of being in a new place. Make it easy on yourself and stay within a short walking distance to the gym – it will make all the difference!

In order to maintain a habit of exercise on the road, that’s really all it takes: make it a commitment and stay near a gym.

But working out is only half the battle – maintaining a healthy diet is equally if not more important to staying in shape, and perhaps much tougher to adhere to. Here are a few tricks I use to resist the temptation:

How to eat healthy while traveling

Eating local foods is almost synonymous with the travel experience. There’s so much temptation to try local cuisine — the vendors themselves smiling and inviting you warmly over to their cart, your friends who indulge and feast, and your grumbling stomach that just wants to be fed after all that walking… can’t we just dig in?!

When you get to this point, there’s a very small chance that you’ll be able to resist the urge to eat. The combination of depleted willpower, social pressure, and hunger are overwhelming. Like the gym, it helps to prepare beforehand so that, when you find yourself out friends, it’s much easier to make smart and healthy choices. And like the gym, it doesn’t take much.

– Eat healthy meals when in transit

After landing in a new city, it’s very easy to “fall into the #YOLO” mindset and just go with the flow. Airports are full of horribly unhealthy and overpriced food, yet have no problem attracting multitudes of sleepy, willpower-deprived travelers. The fact is, when we’re rushing to catch a flight, it’s very easy to rationalize that any food is just good sustenance to get to the next location.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

After several dozen flights around Europe, Asia, and the US, I’ve come to realize that “in-transit” meal choices are essential to showing up to the next city feeling happy and refreshed. Now, I will go to great lengths to find any healthy airport food, rather than mindlessly snack for the sake of energy. I distinctly remember flying from Jakarta to Bali this past spring.

The Jakarta Airport is old, dirty, and full of sickly food options – save for one: a sushi bar at the far end of the terminals.

Hungry and tired from a few days of partying in Jakarta, I craved something – anything – to just get by and get on the plane. But I resisted long enough and eventually found this small sushi bar. Not surprisingly, it was packed with other tourists, most of whom looked to be in great shape.

While this may seem like a waste of time, it actually saves time in the long run – something I learned from experience. When I ate healthy in transit, I would show up to a new locale refreshed and energized, ready to explore and enjoy more of the new city. When I let the diet slip and ate whatever, I showed up tired, cranky and ready for a long nap. That extra 30 minutes to find some halfway-decent sushi translated to a fun night out with friends when I landed in Bali.

There’s an even better approach: kipping the search for healthy airport food altogether and bringing your own healthy travel snacks. This saves time, money, and precious willpower as you make your way to the gate. Visit the local grocer the day before flying and get some essentials: fruits, veggies, nuts and healthy bars.

All set for a long flight from Barcelona to Ho Chi Minh:

dark chocolate nuts celery carrots and cucumber help me stay fit while traveling abroad

With healthy snacks in hand, you’ll be able to resist less-nutritious airport food options.

– Stay somewhere with a kitchen

There’s no better way to eat healthy meals while traveling than to buy and cook your own food. You know exactly what goes into your body, and how much.

The jolly chef at the highly rated hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant may seem like he’s looking out for your best interests, but really he just wants the food to taste as good as possible.

Sit back, relax... we are here to help.

Sit back, relax… we are here to help.

It’s best not to be too picky. Most hostels have a small kitchen with a stove. AirBnB has a filter to choose by kitchen. If it’s there, that’s all that matters.

But there’s no worse feeling than craving healthy food but not being able to find any restaurants with something as basic as vegetables.

Which brings me to the next tip…

– Find one Go-To Restaurant

My first priority in a new city is to find my accommodation and check in. The second priority is to explore the neighborhood, and in the process find a restaurant that serves my kind of food.

My kind of food: scrambled eggs with vegetables.

My kind of food: scrambled eggs with vegetables.

My kind of food: chicken and vegetables.

My kind of food: chicken and vegetables.

When I first started traveling, I made a big mistake. I would search for hours for a restaurant that served healthy food for cheap. In many major cities in Europe and Asia, these types of restaurants are hard to find (compared to major cities in the US). I wasted hours on sites like HappyCow and TripAdvisor trying to find the “perfect fit” of budget and nutrition.

After a year of travel, I’ve developed a much better system for getting what I want, and it’s quite simple. First, I look for any restaurant that has some of my kind of food. For example, most restaurants will have at least one dish with eggs, one with chicken and one with vegetables. To get what I want, I simply ask them to prepare a meal with all of these ingredients mixed together. Almost always, they will accommodate the order.

This was the case in Budapest, Hungary, where my roommate and I had a specially tailored breakfast ready every morning: 5 eggs scrambled, bacon, tomato, mushroom and an Americano coffee (they would even keep our bottle of coconut oil behind the bar and bring it to our table when we sat down).

mEATing Gastropub, the Go-To Restaurant in Budapest.

mEATing Gastropub, the Go-To Restaurant in Budapest.

In Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, a central hub for many location-independent entrepreneurs, the concept of a Go-To Restaurant has been thoroughly embraced with a local breakfast and smoothie spot named Juicy.

The staff at Juicy were so accommodating to making our kind of food, that one day a friend brought in a bag of Spinach and asked them to blend it in his smoothie. A few months later, his smoothie was on the menu as the Tung Smoothie, along with a few smoothie options: the Tom and the Will.

An added side benefit of finding a Go-To Restaurant with Your Kind of Food is that you get to know the staff very well. I look forward to these meals as part of my daily routine, and the staff look forward to seeing me. And all it takes is one. Once you’ve found that one restaurant, you can explore the rest of the city worry-free, knowing that you’ll always have a healthy option in the back pocket.

So, next time you’re worried that you can’t find any healthy food in a new city, think outside the box a little and consider asking a nearby restaurant to prepare a custom healthy meal just for you.

Don’t stress

I’ve laid out a few things I do while traveling that help me stay fit and healthy. These work well and help keep me refreshed, energized, and stress-free to enjoy the rest of my travel experience.

With that in mind, there have been times where I’ve been so worried about eating right or hitting the gym that it’s created more stress. The last thing that a healthy lifestyle should do is stress you out. By remembering to make the commitment, find a gym before hand, prepare some healthy meals, and finding go-to  restaurants, I completely avoid any fitness-related stress when visiting new cities.

Those are a few strategies that work for me – what works well for you?