Getting Fat and Doing Something About It

Photo of a treadmill with a funny sign about getting fat on itI like to think of myself as a healthy person. I’m not overweight, I stay in shape, I like the gym, and I eat right. Or, at least, I like to think I do all of those things.

The truth is, long-term travel can be quite an unhealthy activity. Long days, longer nights, little sleep, very little exercise, a fair bit of alcohol, and unhealthy food.

It’s not to say that if you’re a long-term traveler, you’re going to be unhealthy. No. I know some people who do a daily run, push-ups, and eat nothing but healthy meals every day. But it’s a lot of work to keep it up on the road, because there are a lot more distractions to get in the way. Long nights at the pub make doing your morning run tougher. Doing push-ups in a huge dorm is a bit socially awkward. And when you travel on a budget, eating super healthy meals all the time can be taxing on your budget.

Then throw in some laziness, and you have a recipe for some heavy-duty wear and tear on your body.

Which is why I think I’m getting fat.

I’m not at the point where I need to buy two seats on an airplane but I can definitely tell I’m gaining weight. And not the good muscle weight but the bad, trans-fat, French-fried kind.

Back home, I’m a gym junkie. I work out about five times a week, I eat healthy, and I cook most of my own meals. I love staying in shape and feeling good.

But on the road? Forget about it. I eat lots of fatty hamburgers, French fries, and pasta and drink too many sodas. The last time I did push-ups? Ummm, I can’t remember. I can’t remember the last time I got a good night’s sleep either, which is thanks to a combination of dorm rooms, uncomfortable beds, and an overactive mind. I drink too often (it is always someone’s first or last night at a hostel). I need more salad in my life. I should also eat more fruits and vegetables.

And so, inspired by Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness and his book on staying in shape while traveling, I’m going to be healthier from now on.

I’ve always prided myself on healthy living, but on the road, I seem to check my views at the airport and only once in a while give them faint lip service. But after looking at my growing stomach, I’m going to start being healthy. Not tomorrow, but today.

I’m going to do a number of things to stay healthy:

If you have a bag, you have a gym. As my friend put it, if you have a bag, you have a work out. You can use the weight of your bag like a barbell. You can lift it to do a bicep curl, lift it over your head for a shoulder workout, bench press it, do dead lifts. It’s a perfect, all-purpose weight.

Push-ups. I’m going to do push-ups every other day in order to keep my upper body strong and my stamina up. They’re a quick and easy way to stay in shape. I did some today. I won’t embarrass myself by telling you how few I could do.

Daily juice. Traveling can be a bit taxing on the body. It can wear you down. Since I don’t have vitamins with me, I’m going to up my juice intake to make sure I’m getting a good daily dose of the nutrients my body needs.

Moderate drinking. I’m cutting back on how often I drink alcohol. I’m old. My body doesn’t recover like it did when I was 20, and I don’t like sleeping through most of my days. It’s hard to be that guy who says, “I’m staying in” when all your friends are going out and they want you to join, but I’m going to have to be that guy more often. (Added bonus: I’ll save a ton of money too!)

Sleep. I’m going to try to restore my sleep pattern. Eight hours a night, not staying up till dawn so often, and trying to get to sleep at a normal time. I had a great sleep a few nights ago, and I felt like a new person. I want that feeling more.

Eat healthy. Enough burgers, fries, and pizza. Time to eat more salads, lean meats, rice, vegetables—overall, just more healthy food. It’s easy when you travel to get the quick, cheap meal in order save money. But while that’s a great way to keep costs down, it’s also a great way to keep your waistline up, as cheap food isn’t usually healthy food. This is the biggest change I’m going to make.

Alone time. I think I need more quiet alone time to recharge my batteries. Travel can be a very stimulating experience, and there are always people to meet and places to go. But sometimes, you just need to decompress and have some relaxing alone time. I don’t really do enough of that. I probably haven’t had some me time since I was in Norway. Next week, I’m heading to Sofia to stay with a friend for a week and just recuperate.

I always tell people when it comes to traveling that the more excuses you make, the less likely it will be that you actually go. Yet here I am, making excuses about trying to stay healthy.

So today I’m going to stop making excuses. Enough is enough. Time to start being healthy again. I like that lifestyle so much more than the one I have now.

  1. Nadina

    I can totally relate to that. After spending the last 2 years travelling I have packed on the pounds. It can be very hard to motivate yourself when your in the tropics and the last thing you want to do is go for a run in 40 degree heat/humidity. Also as a woman travelling around India I found it virtually impossible to do any kind of cardio excercise. There simply wasnt anywhere to do it and was a bit ‘socially awkward’ as you mention. (women just dont do that in India). They say yoga is enough for the body but in my case clearly its not!

  2. Good for you for making a conscious effort to be healthier. I’m the complete opposite. I get way more exercise when I’m traveling than when I’m not. We are usually either hiking, surfing or walking a lot wherever we travel. The only thing I really do when I’m at home is surf, so my arms are in great shape, but I need to force myself to get more of a lower body workout. I’m so thankful it’s summer because I’ve been getting a lot more exercise! :)

  3. I can relate to what you’re saying in the article. It’s strange because until my most recent trip I either maintained or lost a little weight; however, on my last trip around Asia I walked less & got into the local delights – fruits shakes, lassis, etc – more often then not. I think the key is to not deny yourself but instead to have a certain amount of healthy meals before you allow yourself to indulge. I don’t think I could ever ‘give’ up local delights or restrict myself too much while traveling but a little more discipline would go a long way & make those tasty treats seem more like a reward as opposed to just another excuse to gain a few pounds.

  4. Good tip on using your bag in place of some weights. The main thing I do to keep in shape while travelling is to use my feet as my transportation whenever possible. Seems to burn those calories off. In fact my wife always loses weight while we are travelling, simply because she is doing more walking than she would normally do at home.

    • Walking works for me too – I always lose weight when traveling – particularly in warm places. I think its because I do eat less when I’m hot, I walk a lot more than I do at home. I don’t have to worry about what I eat or drink, but I do a lot less snacking because I don’t stay in self-catering places, or even rooms with a fridge normally

  5. Cooper

    You can make it fun, exercise does not have to be mind draining. Set your goals and stick by them. Currently I am doing Tour de Pushup, basically you do the same amount of push ups as they do Km’s on the bike in Tour de France (miles would be cutting it short) Fist few days you struggle to get 25-30 in a row. Stage 9 you can do 50 min straight out. By the late stages you can pump out double that.

  6. Sean

    You sound more ready to put down roots with each post.

    Maintaining fitness on the road is HARD and I think it’s one of the things I most looked forward to going home. I lost over twenty pounds while traveling (didn’t need to) and looking back I think I was suffering from a bit of exhaustion at the end.

    The routines we leave behind to travel are not all bad, some we find ourselves missing after a time.

  7. I just got married so I can relate to your post even if I am not traveling:) In addition healthy food costing more and being harder to find on the road, there is of course, the pressure to be culturally sensitive – to try the food local friends give you and to FINISH it. This was often a problem for me working in Asia. You wanted to exercise some portion control but risked offending hosts if you declined a second or third serving (“more! more!”… I can still hear the mealtime persuasion now)…

    What helped me abroad was running (this doubled as sight seeing as I could cover larger city areas running than I would simply strolling), eating significantly smaller meals whenever I prepared or ordered meals for myself and (in Peru and Argentina) either joining a local gym or going to the local pool to work off some of the calories. The pricing doesn’t always make doing this prohibitive. Scandinavia is obviously trickier because EVERYTHING is so expensive but I still got into public pools without too much of a dent in my Krona stash…

    I think your about-turn thinking has a good chance of bringing about the change you want. I am drawing inspiration for it for myself and I am promise to go on a 4.5 mile run within half an hour of hitting “Submit Comment”. One more thing… I just read a great guest post by Ryan Holiday on Tim Ferriss’s blog – it is on a philosophical approach to eating… really REALLY good. You might like it

  8. Great article, and a lot of this resonates with me.

    When you adapt your sleeping patterns to those around you (either in hostel dorms or in homes you visit), always moving to new beds, sleep gets affected. And without proper sleep, everything else (including weight management) falls apart at the seams.

    Cooking healthy? One of the things I miss the most is a kitchen of my own, with a fridge full of healthy organic foods. But on the road? Not always possible. Although I can’t remember the last time I ate at a fast food joint, my diet is often at the mercy of my location and hosts, which means I end up eating things I shouldn’t (and frankly, wouldn’t under any other circumstances). But alas, this is all part of travel to a certain extent.

    “I’m Old.” – Seriously?! How old are you, again? :-) (What ever will you do when you hit 40, or – god forbid – 50? I guess you’ll be long gone by 60…better live it up now, oldie!)

  9. Good for you! I have been very careful to not fall into bad habits during my long-term travels (although drinking vino has gotten the better of me in Buenos Aires). I stuck with the same habits of running in the mornings, going to bed early, a couple drinks a week (until BsAs) and cooking most of my meals.

  10. I just got back from a 5 month trip and also found it difficult to maintain my exercise routine. Before I left I was doing Crossfit 3-4 times a week and also running and practicing yoga, but on the road it was hard to keep these up. I did bring along my swim suit and goggles (which hardly take up any space) and was able to find a few pools along the way, and also ended up buying a pair of running shoes so I could start running again, but these took up a lot of space in my bag.

  11. Great article Matt. I find that I actually exercise more when I travel. I walk till I can’t walk anymore just trying to see everything. But I will admit that I feel a whole lot better when I eat natural whole foods and skip the fast food. There’s always a better choice it’s just being able to discipline yourself to make it. Good luck in your new healthier journeys!

  12. Nicole

    I just bought Steves book last week for the same reason. *pokes tummy*

    I have a particular love for trying the local food when traveling and as a result Europe didn’t much agree with my waist line and i plan on keeping it off when I head back in Jan. (that and being to poor to eat more than cheese toasties in London didn’t help!)

    Good luck with your goal and look forward to hearing how you go. :)

  13. This is so true, Matt! I am heading off for 3-4 months of travel in a few weeks and am desperately trying to get in as much healthy eating and exercise before I go in anticipation of all the things you’ve just mentioned. I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain a year ago (4 weeks of solid walking) and thought I would lose a couple of kilos without even trying….instead, I put on 3!! I’m sure it had nothing to do with all the indulging in Spanish wine and tapas. Good luck with the health kick!

  14. In addition to the day job in the office I am a trained Gym Instructor and Fitness trainer which you think would make me a health and fitness freak but alas the only exercise I find myself doing are walking tours and climbing high hills to tourist sites when I’m travelling!
    I love your tips though! I hope everyone reading is taking note and may I reccomend a few sit ups down beside your bunk no rustling of carrier bags required at 6am so you can let your fellow travellers get the rest of their 8 hours sleep 😉

  15. For me, just backpacking is enough exercise to burn off any additional fat. Every time I hoist my 40 pound pack onto my back, I feel the burn.

  16. I can totally relate. I can’t tell you how many times I stuff my suitcase with changes of workout clothes and sneakers with the intention of running everyday, and then I come home with the running clothes not touched. When I am able to muster the motivation, I’ve done squats and lunges in my room, which combined with pushups and crunches can be an all body workout! Also I always try to take the stairs or walk whenever I can- it has the added bonus of getting to see more of my location that way as well!

  17. I have many friends who are entering retirement. They all start their retirement by doing extensive travel. Many of them have stopped traveling because it was just too difficult to travel extensively and stay fit. I understand the logic” I am on vacation so I should be able to party and eat all I want!” It’s important for people to understand the difference between vacation and travel. I think it is all in the mindset.

  18. Matt – good for you. For limited vacations – one to two weeks – I’ve always lost weight because I walk everywhere and never let myself get too hungry. But for longer trips, I definitely gain weight as I get lazier and get into a slacker routine. Not having a ‘home’ for that long can be stressful for me, and I tend to eat more when I’m stressed. Good luck!

  19. I have the same problem as some of the other readers. I get a lot more exercise on the road than at home. We walk as much as possible and take the stairs everywhere, so even if we end up eating mostly crap food (read: exotic and new!) while we’re away, we still maintain our weight or even lose some. I always say I’m going to continue walking and doing more exercise when I get home and then I forget almost as soon as I get back. Your post is motivating me to try harder when I have more time and more space!

    • NomadicMatt

      I don’t view walking as exercise. I do it all the time so it’s nothing special to me. It just is what you do.

  20. I’m laughing at your comment about how you’re old :) C’mon 30 isn’t that bad!

    One of the ways that we try to stay healthy on the road is by walking everywhere (e.g., 6 hours around a city) and doing long hikes from time to time. Another thing is to drink tons and tons of water and cut out soft drinks. And, eating a main meal at lunch instead of dinner gives more time to work it off before going to sleep.

    That said, I do enjoy being still from time to time where we have control over our diet and can take advantage of yoga classes and other activities.

  21. Hey Matt,
    Great article. Totally relate to it. Been travelling for a bit myself and while I always thought I would go home a “wiry” little travelling thing as we say in Scotland, that’s not happened and instead I’ve actually gained 5 kilos. The problem for me is lack of routine which I do love but does not help with regular fitness. For one of 2 days I walk for miles and miles then I am on a bus for a few days or other transport and lose the fitness again! Keep thinking of buying running shoes and trying that while I’m on the go but not sure if some of the tropical climates I’m in would amene themselves to running! So meantime just trying to keep en eye on the diet and walk whenever I can! Kinda of figuring that while have not become thinner travelling have definitely become happier so the balance is good overall!

  22. It’s funny. I’m the exact opposite! I lose weight on the road – the minute I get back to the states I start piling it on. I actually can’t wait to get back out just so I can lose the weight I’ve gained!

    The bag is a great tip but I have another great one too, if you really want to lose weight go wwoofing. I lost 10 lbs in 2 weeks on the vineyard in Tuscany and I ate a ton of Italian (homecooked & amazing) food and drank a lot of wine every day. I have a thyroid problem and it is SO hard for me to lose weight – I can’t even imagine how long it would normally take me to lose 10lbs.

    I was actually thinking of going and wwoofing again for 4 -6 weeks just so I can lose a lot of weight and get in really good shape! I’m telling you – 8 hours of physical labor a day works! Plus you get the all the cultural benefits of another country and you get to hang out with locals and help organic farmers. Grape picking season is coming up…. :)

  23. margot

    It sounds like even though you’re a solo traveler, you never/rarely actually travel alone. I see this a lot among backpackers. I think it’s subconsciously fear-based and lazy. Take a real leap and travel on your own for months. Don’t latch onto other travelers, don’t follow the herd. This may require paying just a tiny bit more to stay in your own room. Stop with the dorm rooms and forced meeting of dozens of other travelers who act like the purpose of traveling is to party. Get your own room in a hostel or a 1-star hotel/pension. Explore the world on your own. Stop treating travel like a party. And the side benefit will be a much healthier lifestyle.

  24. I realize this original article was written a while back and hopefully you’re doing better on the road. I know the struggles as well. I also run a health and fitness business completely online so I CAN travel and “work” at the same time.
    We just got off the road for 6 weeks and we did have a car so not “backpacking” and we do private rooms in hostels/couchsurfing/airbnb. I was able to workout in our room 10-30 min a day, I travel with resistance bands. I stop at grocery stores instead of fast food places to pick up veggies and fruits for snacks, yogurt, nuts, etc. I tend to chose vegetarian meals when dining out.
    Get over feeling socially awkward in a dorm room – if there are people having sex in the next bed in the middle of the night, snoring and farting, they can put up with a few pushups…I did a 30 minute workout at LAX during a layover. You have to want it more than you have to want being out of shape and tired. Heck, you might even inspire someone to do something healthy for themselves… If you haven’t noticed there’s a slight globesity issue :)

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