After four months of backpacking around Europe and Southeast Asia, the truth was staring at me in the mirror. The lean, toned body I had loved back in California, where I cycled between surfing, yoga, climbing and at-home kettle bell workouts and ate a mostly-paleo diet, was long gone.
Were those dimples on my thighs? Yikes.
Europe’s carb-heavy diet, combined with my fear of going hungry (I get hangry, okay?), plus months of Southeast Asian street food, hostel breakfasts, and long travel days spent sitting on planes, trains and busses had shown up on my body in a way that I was not happy about.
If I was honest, my backpacker diet consisted mainly of white bread, eggs, fried rice, fried samosas, and noodles. Add a few tropical fruits, a piddly amount of fried vegetables and an ice cream or snickers, and you had a pretty typical day in my food life. It wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of healthy eating.
I always strive to keep a healthy attitude about body. Instead of regularly stepping on a scale, I pay attention to how I feel and how I look in the mirror. And when I say ‘look in the mirror,’ I mean that I focus on what my body can do (catch waves and hike up mountains) over how my body compares to the models I see on Instagram.
But after months of backpacking, how I felt and what I saw in the mirror was….well, not good. I decided then and there to find a travel lifestyle that was healthy and sustainable. After all, when you’re on a long term backpacking trip around the world, indulging like you’re on a short-term vacation isn’t doing your body any favors.
Over the next few months, I tested out different strategies with the goal of feeling great while traveling. The changes weren’t instant, but I gradually found myself feeling stronger, leaner and more energized. The following eight ideas are my tried-and-true methods for staying fit and healthy while backpacking around the world:
1. Eat fist-sized portions
I’m the last person to ever support depriving yourself of food when you’re hungry. Nope, a girl’s gotta eat. But try this rule of thumb to keep from overeating (it’s much easier than calorie counting); eat portions the size of your fist. Especially when your food options aren’t exactly healthy, eating less is your best bet. And slow down, for pete’s sake…your food isn’t going anywhere. If you’re in a country where the cuisine is mostly fried or carb-heavy, try picking up something from the local market (yogurt and fruit, for example) for one meal, instead of eating out.
2. Drink plenty of water
Staying hydrated is key to avoiding those binge-eating, ‘I’m-starving’ moments that strike, only to later realize you actually were just kind of thirsty. Oops. Cue feeling uncomfortably full. So be sure to drink a full glass of water before eating a meal. And skip the soda, fruit juice and sports drinks. Craving something refreshing, sweet and salty? Drink a coconut, it’s loaded with potassium and other minerals your body craves.
3. Avoid processed foods
Snacks, I’m looking at you. Skip the chips, cookies, biscuits, candy and white bread whenever possible. Yes, processed food is everywhere you will travel, and it’s cheap. But it won’t leave you feeling full or satisfied, and that daily pack of cookies isn’t doing your body any favors. Instead, keep a supply of nuts and dried fruit to stave off hunger when you’re sightseeing, and reach for a banana, apple or avocado when you’ve got access to fresh fruit. Surprisingly, these foods are also just about everywhere you will travel.
4. Have a do-anywhere workout
Come up with a workout routine that can be done anywhere —such as a hostel dorm room, a bus station or at the beach. If you feel awkward doing lunges in public, just remember, you’ll probably never see any of these people ever again. My routine takes about 15 minutes (30 minutes including stretches), gets my heart rate up and works my whole body. In addition, look for little opportunities throughout the day to incorporate exercise. For example; I do squats while I brush my teeth. Or, grab a buddy and head to a local park and get creative with what you find there.
5. Walk, hike, run, bike and swim this way
In three words; Don’t. Be. Lazy. Walk to your destination instead of catching a tuktuk or taxi. Take a hike to a local point of interest, or rent a bicycle instead of a motorbike and go for a sightseeing adventure. If it’s insanely hot and running or hiking sounds like your version of hell, go for a swim in the ocean or book the hostel with a swimming pool. If you’re on the coast, rent a surfboard or kayak, go for a paddle and give your arms a workout.
I use the ‘Health’ app on my iPhone to keep track of the miles I cover, aiming for at least 10,000 steps per day. Of course, this alone isn’t enough to turn me into a lean, mean fitness machine. But staying active while you’re traveling the world really does make a difference over time.
There’s a million ways to stay active while you travel, which leads me to the next tip….it’s much easier to be active when you aren’t hungover.
6. Think before you drink
Sometimes it can feel like hostel culture is all about drinking alcohol. But you came here to see the world, right? (And not through the bottom of a glass). Think of it this way; If you do decide to skip the booze, you’ll wake up earlier, eat healthier and feel more energized tomorrow. So grab a non-alcoholic drink and join the fun, without the impending hangover.
If you do decide to indulge, remember; choose light beer over dark, hard alcohol is better than beer, and skip the sugary mixers. Instead of Red Bull or cranberry juice, opt for soda water with lemon/lime. When every day feels like the weekend, it’s easy to get carried away. Try limiting your drinking days/nights to a reasonable number, such as one or two per week. And don’t forget to combat tomorrow’s hangover by drinking a glass of water in between each alcoholic beverage you consume.
7. Change it up, slow it down
If the status-quo isn’t working for you, it may be time to dramatically change up your day-to-day travel lifestyle. Maybe you developed a severe gelatto addiction in Italy (guilty!), or made awesome binge-drinking friends in Bangkok… whatever unhealthy groove you’re stuck in, find a way to break the cycle.
“I was traveling with a really great group of people in Cambodia, but we were drinking every single day and partying all night. I got sick and realized I had to get away,” confessed Jessica, a solo backpacker I met in Bali. “I booked my ticket alone to Bali, where I spent a week doing yoga, going to bed early and eating healthy food. I just really needed to get away from that lifestyle.”
During my trip in Southeast Asia, I realized that changing locations ever other day was making me feel unhealthy and stressed. Since I was constantly in a rush in an unfamiliar location, I was eating poorly and didn’t feel like I had time to work out. Slowing down and staying put for longer allowed me to develop a healthy routine, exercise daily and suss out the best food options in town.
8. Keep it all in perspective
When all else fails and you simply can’t find a healthy meal or you have a big night out, be kind to yourself. You’re here to see the world and live life to the fullest. If you gain a few pounds along the way, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to loose them again in the future. Life is best experienced in moderation, which means there’s no need to take your fitness, diet or —conversely —drinking to extremes while you’re traveling. Do the best you can and remember to be thankful for your health and the awesome body that makes your around-the-world adventure possible.