How to Stay in Shape While Traveling

Everybody travels.

Whether it’s for business, pleasure, vacation, world domination, or epic questing, at some point in our lives we all depart from the comfort of our personal “Shire” to visit another location.  It might be a quick trip to the next town over for a business conference or a massive adventure halfway around the world for months at a time.  No matter what kind of trip it is, one thing is certain:

Our normal routines get completely thrown out the window when traveling:

  • If you work out in a gym, suddenly you might not have access to any equipment.
  • If you run around your neighborhood, suddenly you no longer have a familiar path to follow.
  • If you usually prepare your own meals, suddenly you don’t have a kitchen or fridge.
  • If you’re used to a good night’s sleep, suddenly you’re sleeping at odd hours in different time zones.

We are creatures of habit – while working a normal day job, we can stick to a routine pretty easily (wake up at the same time, eat all meals at the same time, work out at the same time, go to sleep at the same time).  However, when we start traveling, absolutely nothing is familiar and the slightest speed bump can be enough to screw things up.

Luckily, there is hope! 

It’s time to get you a specific action plan that you can take with you on your next trip, whether its for a day or a year.

My Story

I have been a gym rat my entire life.

Well, it certainly feels like my entire life – I got my first gym membership at age 16, and I can probably count the number of months on one hand when I didn’t have a gym membership of some kind since then:

  • In high school, I worked out at Sportsite in Sandwich, MA.
  • In college, I worked out at Vanderbilt’s student gym.
  • When I moved to California, I worked out at 24-Hour Fitness in Pacific Beach, California.
  • When I lived in Atlanta, I worked out at the LA fitness by my apartment.

During the majority of that time I also always had access to a blender and raw materials to mix my breakfast shake and post-workout shake.  Back when I had a regular day job, I had a very clear routine – wake up, drink my breakfast shake, eat my snacks brought from home, eat a pre-made meal at lunch, go to the gym after work, drink another shake, cook myself a healthy dinner, and get to bed at a reasonable hour after an hour or two of gaming.

However, things always got completely screwed up whenever I traveled (which was a lot) – hotel gyms were always crappy, I was always “too busy” to exercise, I could never find a good set of weights, and I allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted “because I was traveling.”  Not surprisingly, my fitness progress would either stall completely or backpedal during these trips, and I’d have to spend two weeks after coming home trying to get back into a rhythm.

Because I was on the road so often, it was a constant game of “2 steps forward, one step back.”

My big trip

Back in January 2011, I began an adventure of epic proportions, traveling all over Australia, New Zealand, and Asia.

Not going to lie, I was seriously worried about my physical well-being for this trip.  I had never been able to stick to anything other than the occasional hike – I justified this by telling myself that it was just too hard to keep a routine and that I would pick things back up when I came home.

Now, for this big trip, I was going to be traveling for five months with no access to a gym or a blender (which had previously accounted for half of my daily meals).  I was going to be living out of a backpack, in a new city every few days, sleeping at odd hours, exploring exotic locations, crossing off crazy things from my list, flying stunt planes and finding Nemo, and also working full-time on Nerd Fitness.

On top of that, I managed to get myself sick for the first two weeks of the trip and I didn’t work out or eat right at all.  I was already starting behind the 8-ball.

And then I put on my hard hat and went to work.

Three Months of Win

Steve-Kamb-Shirtless-Before-After-3-Months

These are before and after pictures of me, taken almost three months apart.  The picture on the left was taken on Feburary 14th on Waiheke Island in New Zealand – I weighed 162 pounds.  The picture on the right was taken on May 12th in a hotel room in Bangkok, Thailand – I weighed 174 pounds.

Despite an incredibly hectic life and travel schedule, I was able to pack on 10-12 pounds of muscle during my three months of hardcore traveling. (I didn’t have any way to measure body fat while traveling so I don’t have exact numbers).  I spent the first nine weeks “bulking up” by overloading my system with calories and strength training, and the last three weeks before this picture “thinning out” by eating less calories while continuing to strength train.

Now, if you’re thinking, “big deal, I could put on twelve pounds in three months no problem!” I will tell you that I absolutely BUSTED my ass during those three months to put on the RIGHT KIND of weight to get stronger and bigger.  If you’ve ever tried to pack on muscle, you know it’s tough without lifting any weights or having access to a steady supply of healthy food.

Whether your goal is weight loss or muscle gain, here’s how you can stay on target for your next trip.

Make It Your Constant

Back in November 2010, I took three weeks off from doing any strength training during my trip to Peru – I didn’t see the need to continue my workout routine without a gym or access to healthy calories and my training suffered big time.

However, I knew that I would have NO CHOICE but to find a new way to stay strong and healthy during my big adventure.

Want to know my real reasoning for forcing myself to stay in shape and exercise on my trip?  Nerd Fitness and Google.  I knew that I had a community of people here looking to me for advice on how to stay healthy and active – I had to practice what I preached.  On top of that, I had already been scheduled to give my talk at Google in June – who would take advice from a skinny, weak, out of shape kid on how to become more fit?

So, I made a commitment.  I took it as a personal challenge (which is different than a physical challenge on Double Dare) to come back in better shape than before  I left.

I don’t know if you’re a Lost fan, but my favorite episode, “the Constant,” involved a character named Desmond who had to find the one “constant” in his life in order to stay alive and sane.

Because I was traveling around countries, sleeping on buses, exploring temples, and visiting a new town seemingly every other day, my exercise became my constant.  I knew that without a doubt, no matter where I was or what I was doing, every other day I would find a way to work out – no excuses.  I think in the four months while I was overseas, I might have had to add in an extra day between workouts maybe a handful of times.

Your exercise needs to become your constant while traveling – make a commitment to yourself that you will find at least one hour every other day to exercise – NO EXCUSES.  Add it to your calendar, set up an email reminder, do whatever it takes, but don’t take no for an answer.  You might need to wake up early one day to fit it in.  You might need to exercise at 11PM at night on another day.

Just effing do it.

Understand the importance of keeping up your routine even while traveling, and you’ll be able to come back to your regular daily routine without skipping a beat.

Where and how do I exercise?

Remember how I said I used to be a gym rat?

I might never set foot in a gym again.  I was able to get in the best shape of my life while traveling because I put my focus on strength training with increasingly challenging body weight exercises.

Whenever I got to a new town, my first mission was to go for a walk and find one of three things:

  • A pull up bar or swing set
  • A sturdy tree branch
  • A building or bus stop overhang

I knew that as long as I could find one of those three things, I could complete a full workout.  My workouts consisted of a push exercise (push ups or handstand push ups), a pull exercise (pull ups or chin ups), a leg exercise (lunges or squats), and a core exercise (planks or hanging knee tucks).

(Can’t do pull ups (YET) or can’t find a tree branch?  Do body weight rows using a desk or table, or pick up your suitcase and do dumbbell rows.  Everything else you can do with just your body.)

Every other day, I did a full body workout with simple exercises listed above.  Because I was working out my entire body in the same routine, it didn’t matter if I had to push back my next workout by a day or two due to travel.  Compare that to somebody who does separate body parts every day (boooooo) – one missed day can throw a whole schedule out of wack.

I always found space to work out no matter where I was and so can you.  You might have a decent hotel gym, you might need to work out in your hotel or dorm room (don’t worry, got you covered there), you might need to do lunges in your hallway, or maybe you need to find a park or school playground somewhere.  Go for a walk, pick a direction, and try to find a small patch of land to do your push ups, squats and jump rope.

(Side note: you WILL get weird looks from people, especially if you’re doing pull ups on a swingset bar while toddlers are swinging next to you.  Try to keep your swearing and shouting to a minimum when little Timmy is sitting next to you picking his nose).

Here’s a look at one of my workouts from the beginning of the trip (2/14 New Zealand):

Pushups, 2 min between sets
25, 20, 12, 12
Lunges, 2 min between. Count is for both legs
15, 15, 15
Wide grip pull ups on thick tree branch
6, 5, 4, 3

Compare that to a workout from the end of my trip (5/18 Beijing):

Handstand push ups, 2 min between sets
7, 5, 4, 3 full and 3 half (best yet*)
Close grip chin ups, 90 seconds between sets
22, 14, 8, 5
Assisted one-legged squats (each leg), 1 minute between legs
8,8, 8,8, 8,8
Side to side push up (to each side)
9,9 8,8 7,7
Various gymnastic holds

Now obviously, I didn’t just go from doing regular push ups to handstand push ups and regular squats to one legged squats overnight – it was three months of constant, consistent improvement.  I wanted to get stronger, so I built my workout around those goals – I made sure to increase the difficulty of each exercise as soon as I could do more than 3-4 sets of 10 reps per set.  Because I was also overloading my system with calories, it allowed me to get bigger as well.

So how did I know when to “level up” my exercises?

Track your progress!

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: your goal is to be better today than you were yesterday.  This is incredibly difficult to do if you don’t know how you did yesterday!

I kept track of every single work out while I was traveling, including how much time I waited between each set of exercises, if I could only do a half repetition, and sometimes how I felt afterwards.  I knew exactly how many reps of each exercise I needed to do in order to be better and stronger compared to the previous.

As to how I kept track of my workouts, I used a simple app on my iPhone called Evernote - a new entry for every workout.   The picture to the right is a screen capture from my iPhone of my workouts while traveling.  If you don’t have a fancy phone, just bring a piece of paper and pencil with you – my notes are VERY basic.

I’ve over covered how to track your progress to make sure you’re progressing, so now it’s time to make sure your workouts are progressing too.

If you could only do one squat and half a push up yesterday, aim for two squats and 3/4ths of a push up tomorrow.

It DOESN’T MATTER where you start, no matter how weak you think you are.  What matters is that you’re better than you were last time.

Make eating a BIG priority

I have no doubt in my mind I wouldn’t have had ANY success traveling and training if I didn’t put a huge emphasis on my eating.  The picture above was one of the meals that I helped prepare during a family style dinner in New Zealand (and it was easy to cook too!)

You cannot outrun a bad diet, and you can’t out-train it either.

Now, I was eating to GAIN healthy weight on my trip, which required a ridiculous amount of food consumption.  I knew food was going to be a big part of my success for my time on the road, so I made eating a priority:

I increased my food budget to cover the increased costs – I spent less money on extra expenses so that I could afford to eat enough while traveling.  It was tough saying “no thanks, I’m staying in tonight” to a group of fun travelers going out on the town, but I had my goals and priorities set and nothing was going to stop me.

I made eating a priority – because I was trying to GAIN weight and muscle, I had to overload my system with a lot of extra calories, which is tough to do on a tight budget and no consistent kitchen.  If you’re curious as to what I ate while traveling in hostels and living out of a backpack, here’s a typical day for me: 2-3L of whole milk, an entire bag of almonds, lots of apples and peanut butter (couldn’t find almond butter anywhere), peanut butter sandwiches, shots of olive oil (seriously) before every meal, spinach and walnut salads, and lots of grilled chicken and hamburger.  I often ate an unhealthy meal from Subway (foot-long meatball sub – best $/calorie & protein ratio I could find) right after working out to make sure I was building muscle and replenishing the energy stored within my muscles.  It was expensive, and a lot of work.

So yeah, I “was fortunate enough” to get to eat a lot of calories, but it was a lot of unfun and boring calories.  But I did it, because that’s what I needed to do to get results.  And you haven’t lived until you watch a room full of people stare at you as you guzzle a bottle of olive oil.

(Note: I upped my food budget significantly to avoid the typical backpacker diet: bags of rice and pasta and cheap carbs for sustenance.  Had I followed that diet, I would have come back looking like a skeleton.  I ate plenty of meat and enough protein to ensure muscle growth, and timed my “unhealthy” meals around workouts).

I did the best I could - sometimes you’re going to be in a town where you don’t have many options.  Sometimes you’ll have to go out to dinner at an unhealthy restaurant.  Sometimes you’ll be stuck in an airport that only serves $12 dollar salads.  These things happen.

Teddy Roosevelt said it best: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

I planned ahead – I knew I was going to be traveling on certain days, and I knew I’d be without a kitchen on other days, so I planned ahead.  If I was going to be on a bus for 10 hours, I traveled with a bag of almonds, three apples, a jar of peanut butter, and a bottle of olive oil to make sure I got my meals and extra calories in.

Author’s note: you’re probably thinking “Steve, I thought you were a Paleo guy? Meatball subs and peanut butter sandwiches? That’s not very healthy. What gives?” I hear you, and don’t worry, I still think the Paleo Diet is the best way to eat healthy.  I deviated from this path for the few months while traveling because I was solely focused on gaining weight and muscle while also traveling, and finding 4,000 calories of 100% paleo approved calories per day just wasn’t in my (already increased) budget. Think of this as one of those ‘Don’t try this at home, kids!’ PSAs. The more you know (do do do dooooooo….). 

Since returning home to the States for the past few weeks, I have stayed relatively true to the Paleo lifestyle – I knew my “meal plan” before was only temporary, so it was a simple switch.

What are your goals? Whatever you’re currently working on improving in your life – weight loss, muscle gain, increased strength, etc. – you can continue working on that while traveling as well if you take care of your diet.

  • Travel day?  Pack some healthy snacks with you in your bag – apples and almonds are my go-to.
  • Going out to dinner with your company?  Find the restaurant online, scour the menu, and “pre-order your dinner” in your mind so you know what to order when you get there.  Order the “meat + veggie + potato” option on the menu, and ask for double veggies instead.  Aim for something like steak tips, or grilled chicken, salmon, etc.
  • Traveling with your family? Let them know that you’re making a concerted effort to eat better and that you’d like their support.
  • Going out with friends? Let’s say you’re going out with buddies, and you have no choice but to eat fried food and drink tons of beer (I hate when that happens).  Compensate by being extra diligent on the days before and after – no drive through meals, no late-night vending machine stops, no bad snacks while at the convention.
  • Have a tight food budget? How bad is it really?  I thought my food budget was an issue…but then when I cut out money for beer and other things that aren’t REALLY necessary, suddenly things became less tight.

Now, you might read all of that above and think “damn Steve, did you have ANY fun on your trip? I’m traveling and on vacation and now you want me to give up all the fun stuff!” 

Not true – I certainly had a blast while traveling, I still went out and had fun (ask the town of Noosa, Australia about St. Patty’s Day: they’ll tell you), went on all kinds of adventures, ran Nerd Fitness as a one-man operation, and still managed to come back in better shape than when I left.

Pick your battles.  Plan ahead.  Make eating a priority.

If your goal is weight loss, try to maximize the good stuff (meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts and minimize  the bad stuff (junk food, processed grains and carbs, sugary beverages, etc.).  Sounds too easy to be effective, but it’s not – if you plan ahead, it IS that easy.

Yes, you will get made fun of by your unhealthy friends, or peer pressured into eating bad and skipping workouts by those around you.  Tough sh**.  Two thirds of this country is overweight and out of shape.

Look at “everybody else”…do you really want to be like them?

Stay Active

Last but not least – stay active.

I don’t care if you’re walking laps in the airport while listening to Ke$ha during a two hour layover or jumping rope at a bus stop – FIND A WAY TO BE ACTIVE EVERY DAY.

I already told you that eating right will be 80% of your success or failure – that means you need to be “on” with how you eat every day, even on days that you’re not strength training.  Go for a run around the town, go for a hike, toss a frisbee in the park, go swimming in the ocean, etc.

Whatever it is, do something!

I find that on days when I exercise, I eat better.  Something activates in my brain when exercising that says “I’m trying to be healthy, so I’m going to eat healthy.”  On days when I don’t exercise at all, I tend to say things like “meh, I’ll do it tomorrow” or ‘it’s only one meal” or “it’s only 37 beers” (kidding, Mom).

Even if it’s 5 minutes of jump rope (the ONLY piece of equipment I travel with), it’s better than nothing and will get you in the proper frame of mind.

So go for a walk - try walking EVERYWHERE.  In a big city? If it’s nice out walk instead of taking a cab! Go for a jog around your new surroundings…just stay active.

If you’re concerned about losing strength or muscle, a healthy diet combined with just one full-body strength training session per week (if you’re on a shorter trip) can often be enough to allow you to maintain your current levels and hit the ground running when you get back.

Questions?

This Thursday, I begin the next part of my epic adventure.  Here’s my upcoming schedule:

  • 7/28 – 8/1: Washington, D.C.
  • 8/1 – 8/5: Chicago, IL
  • 8/5 – 9/3: Ireland
  • 9/3 – 9/28: Spain
  • 9/28-10/24: Boston and Atlanta
  • 10/24-???: Who knows?

You bet your ass that I’m going to keep training and pushing myself during this trip, with a strong emphasis on eating better and getting stronger.  I can’t wait to get back out on the road, visit new countries, cross a few more things off my epic quest list, and have some fun.

Do you travel for work? Do you have a big adventure coming up?  A vacation this summer?  What struggles do you have while on the road? What kind of questions do you have about staying in shape and traveling?

Leave a question in the comments and I’ll help in any way that I can.

-Steve

PS - If you’re curious about my exact workouts while traveling or want more travel workout tips, I’ve written a whole “road warrior” guide as part of the deluxe version of the Rebel Strength Guide.

PPS – If you leave in Washington DC or in Chicago, let me know if you’re available for a Nerd Fitness meet up – I’m thinking THIS Thursday (7/28) for Washington, D.C. and next Tuesday (8/2) for Chicago.  If you are around email me at [email protected] with the city in the subject line.

Today’s Rebel Hero: Jason Fitz, from StrengthRunning, in a freaking volcano:

Jason was on vacation in Hawaii for the past few weeks, and had this picture taken while inside a Volcano crater and rocking his Nerd Fitness t-shirt.  Fun fact: While wearing his NF shirt, Jason ran so quickly that he actually ran home from Hawaii back to the US.  Yup, the shirts are that powerful.

Have you ordered your Nerd Fitness shirt yet? Pick one up (only $20 with free shipping anywhere in the world), and send me a photo – you could be the next Rebel Hero!  These suckers have been proven to be quite popular so we’re having a little trouble keeping them in stock, so it might take a week or more for them to arrive…but they’ll get there!

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  • http://www.adrianstraveltales.com/ Adrian’s Travel Tales

    It is always a struggle for me to stay fit while traveling and now that I travel for a living, it’s constantly on my mind. I try to walk EVERYWHERE, but I know that’s not enough. These are some great tips that I will definitely incorporate into my daily life. I especially like the idea to travel my workout, to keep me engaged. Thanks!

  • Robyn

    LOVED reading this article! Come the new year ill be living and studying in Germany for a year and half and definitely all that schnitzel and beer will get to me. I’ve finally gotten into the grove of my workouts being back at school and I don’t want to lose my routine travelling. Your tips will really help the transition! happy travelling :)

  • Michael

    Really good advice there. I have recently been active in the gym during a three month absence from work but im dreading that i will lose my gains when i go back to work because i work in a fly in/fly out mining operation and dont always have access to a good quality gym. This gives me encouragement and some practical advice such that i can not only hold steady but also make improvement while away from the gym.

    By the way, i also agree with the comment to just ffing do it. Its a principle i have always applied to my gym work in that it doesn’t matter what you look like, what time you do the workout or how you feel, you body doesnt care. It only cares whether you did it or not.

  • http://www.homebehindtheworldahead.com Emily

    I’ve just started my 3 year long term travel journey (2 weeks in China so far) and staying healthy on the road is TOUGH. I’ve been struggling and my body is feeling it. So I’m taking a rest day today (though I do plan on walking around Chengdu for at least an hour at some point) and doing research and planning. This article helped immensely because you basically did the same kind of trip that I’m currently doing. Being in a foreign country where fruits and fresh veggies are not always safe to eat is tough. But I think as long as I can find good vegetables (not oily or fried is also tough in China) and peelable fruits I should be ok. And nuts. Lots of nuts. Now I just need to be brave enough to go to a park and look like a weirdo working out :). Thanks again!

  • Yuri Pereira Ramos

    Seriously dude you helped me ALOT!!!!
    I’ve been looking for topics like that on internet for like 2 days, but your topic was the most consistent that i’ve looked up!!!

    Im planning to do a trip in january, not a major trip like yours, but a one month trip, and i care about my shape quality not decrease too much, but i will enjoy drinking almost everyday, smoking weed and not healthing as you, but will try to stay healthy almost everyday(not junk food or the healthy choice) and stayin’ active and doin’ some street workouts everyday!!

    thanks a lot dude

  • Who Needs Maps

    This is an awesome post, we also did a huge trip around Asia and I lost around 5kg of fat and muscle in the first half of the trip then changed my ways and maintained the muscle and shed all the fad due to a serious asian diet haha

    Here are a few ways that we kept fit while traveling – http://www.whoneedsmaps.com/fitness-while-traveling/

    I really think the section on food and diet is probably the most important, that and getting in a constant routine!

    Thanks for sharing, this is awesome!

  • Meg

    Hi! Thank you for this post -
    So motivational.

    I’m on a 7month world tour in a play. I did a 6week training programme before I came away and was the leanest and fittest I’ve been. 2 months in and I’m so gutted – I’ve maintained my fitness levels … A bit. But it’s the diet that I’m struggling with. I’m in hotels and breakfast is very hit and miss. Sometimes it’s
    so limited and carb heavy but because I’m doing two shows a day I can’t just have a bit fruit I need something substantial. We also eat out every night and being with actors … they drink. I’m also the only girl in the cast so it’s really hard not to buckle and be the “boring girl”.

    Your post has given me inspiration to be stronger. But do you have any tips specific for a girl on your? I don’t want to bulk of build muscle but get lean and tone up again. Thank you x

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