The Foolproof Guide to Staying in Shape While Traveling
Updated: 05/14/20 | May 14th, 2020
Many moons ago I came across an article about a guy who travel hacked a round-the-world airline ticket for $418 USD. The article appeared in Gizmodo (I was a bit jealous I didn’t write the article) and featured a blogger named Steve Kamb from Nerd Fitness.
I started reading his website, and we exchanged some messages, eventually met at a conference, and quickly became close friends. Steve is one of the biggest health and fitness bloggers out there, with Nerd Fitness reaching millions of people per month! I always ping him for health and fitness advice.
Now, Steve has a book out called Level Up Your Life. It’s a detailed guide to getting in shape, staying motivated, and doing all those epic quests you’ve always wanted to do.
Like the website, it uses “nerdy” references to get the point across. I read it, loved it, and took copious notes. It’s worth every penny! Today he’s giving us in-depth advice on how to stay in shape on the road. Steve, take it away!
A few years back, after stumbling across some guy named Matt’s travel website, I was inspired to journey the world for 18 months, starting in Australia.
When I landed in Sydney to start my life as a nomad, there was one thing above all others that terrified me:
Getting out of shape. (OK, I was really afraid of spiders too.)
Any time I had traveled in the past, I abandoned my workouts and healthy eating went right out the window because: “Hey, I’m traveling!”
Returning home from any trip was like taking five giant steps backward on my health and having to start over. It bummed me out, but I was always worried about missing that amazing meal or big night out.
But on this trip big multi-month trip, I thought, “Hey, I run a company called Nerd Fitness — if I can’t find a way to travel AND stay healthy, who would ever take advice from me?” I needed to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
I also wanted to prove that it was possible to have it all. That you can stay healthy and strong and fit, and also have amazing adventures, say yes to parties, eat local food, and live in the moment while traveling.
I traveled to more than 20 countries, hiked the Great Wall of China, swam with sharks, tracked wild animals in South America, and even lived like James Bond in Monaco.
I learned on that trip that being healthy and “living in the moment” DON’T have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, being healthy can be GREAT for helping you to live in the moment and say yes to adventures too.
I just published a book called Level Up Your Life about helping people live more adventurous lives and how to put a plan in place to make that happen, and it covers some of the stuff below along with more travel help.
Today, Matt wanted me to share some of my advice with you. (Matt says: And with me too, because I always feel like I gain ten pounds when I travel!)
So here’s a blueprint for living healthy, taking care of yourself, and still doing all the fun stuff that made you want to travel in the first place.
A Workout You Can Do Anytime, Anywhere!
When most people think of exercise, they usually think of people torturing themselves in a gym with weight machines and running on treadmills like a hamster for hours at a time. Gross.
Besides, when you’re traveling, the LAST thing you want to be thinking about is being cooped up in a gym when you should be out exploring your new surroundings. I used to be a gym rat trying to get fit, and it wasn’t until I started traveling that I really had to dig into the motivation behind WHY we should take care of ourselves:
So we can do cool activities that remind us why being alive is amazing!
We only get one chance on this planet, and we only have one body to do it in, so we should probably take care of ourselves. Luckily, if we can do some basic things and put a few key systems in place while traveling (and when we’re not traveling), we’ll be ready to do whatever, wherever, whenever. Jackpot!
Basic Workout You Can Do Anywhere
To start, and hopefully this goes without saying, doing things like riding your bike, hiking, and going for walking tours is a FANTASTIC start to building a healthy body. It’s exercise that doesn’t really feel like exercise, because you’re also exploring new locations like Indiana Jones or Carmen Sandiego.
But I also want to teach you a basic workout that you can do ANYWHERE on the planet. I know this is true, because I’ve done it in a parking lot in Singapore, a bus stop in New Zealand, in the middle of the Australian Outback, and other absurd places.
This basic strength-training workout is really helpful to having a great experience while traveling. When you strength-train, you build your muscles, joints, and tendons stronger each time — preparing them for any activity you throw at them. Best of all, it’s quick, targets every muscle in your body with just a few functional movements, and can completed anywhere.
This workout can help you get strong and healthy and still have plenty of time to do whatever else you need to do.
Here’s a full walk-through video from a few years back of me completing a basic workout with different variations for each exercise, on a playground in Ecuador:
Now, you might be wondering where to find a playground? Simple! Anytime you get to a new city, look on Google Maps or speak with the person who runs your hostel and ask for the nearest park. All you need is enough space on the ground to do your squats and push-ups, and something to hang from for your pull-ups.
I’ve done pull-ups on tree branches, bus stop overhangs, and parking lot structures; squats and lunges in the middle of a desert outside a tent; and push-ups practically everywhere.
Or pick up your suitcase and do dumbbell rows.
Everything else you can do with just your body.)
Try the Nomadic Matt Travel Workout Plan:
- 3 sets of 10 bodyweight squats
- 3 sets of 10 push-ups
- 3 sets of 10 lunges
- 3 sets of 10 reverse crunches
- 3 sets of 10 backpack lifts
You can follow the above workout every other day, or even just once a week, and it’ll help you stay on target and keep you prepared for everything. If you only have five minutes here and there, that’s fine. Do squats when you can. Crank out a few pull-ups when you find something to hang from while on your hike, or bust out a plank in an epic location because why the hell not.
Diet is 80% of the Battle!
Ugh, nobody wants to hear this while traveling, but how you eat will account for 80–90 percent of how you look and feel. Seriously! You can’t outrun a bad diet, and you can’t out-train one either.
What we’re trying to avoid is the depression and crash dieting that follows a trip full of overeating abroad: “Ugh, where did all of this fat come from? Time to starve myself!” Nope, not anymore!
Instead, let’s put a decent plan in place so that we CANNOT go overboard while traveling and therefore skip drastic measures when we get back home — something that’s consistent and sustainable.
How do we do that? By building a simple, kickass nutrition plan that is easy to follow and applicable anywhere everywhere on the planet:
- Eat real food most of the time. Liquid calories are brutal.
- Don’t rely on meal timing or calorie counting.
- Do the best you can. Don’t freak out!
What we’re aiming for is food that keeps us satiated and on target, i.e., mostly vegetables, some form of protein (be it from animal sources or legumes), and then some fruits and/or nuts — occasionally a bit of rice or potatoes, and minimal bread or pasta or liquid calories.
You’ve probably heard of this type of diet referred to as “the Paleo diet” or “eating like a caveman.” It’s the ultimate time-tested nutrition strategy, as you’re eating natural foods that have existed for millennia.
Better yet, these foods can generally be found anywhere on the planet, and it keeps things simple, so you don’t need to worry about counting calories or weighing your food. It’s one I’ve employed to great success throughout the world, but it does require you to be deliberate in your decision making with each meal.
You might be wondering specifically what you should and shouldn’t eat and how much. Let’s start with the “what,” and then we can cover the “how much.” Cap’n Crunch, pizza, pasta, bread, candy, soda — these are all processed foods full of nonsense, so we should avoid them whenever we can.
The focus should be on quality food from natural sources (this can often be easier in foreign countries than it is in the United States, as it seems this country is built around grains, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and carbs!).
Here’s what you should be building your diet around:
- Meat: Real animals with four legs
- Fowl: Chicken, turkey, duck, hen — things with wings
- Fish: This also includes shrimp, lobster, crab, mussels, clams, and other water-dwelling creatures.
- Eggs: Chicken eggs, ostrich eggs, but not Cadbury Eggs!
- Vegetables: Dark, leafy green veggies are a favorite. No, corn is not a vegetable!
- Oils: Olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil — think natural.
- Fruits: A good source of carbs, but they can contain lots of natural sugar and can be higher in calories, so limit them if you’re trying to lose weight.
- Nuts: Loaded with healthy fats but high in calories, they’re good for a snack, but don’t eat bags and bags of them.
- Tubers: Sweet potatoes and yams. Higher in calories and carbs, but good right after a workout.
- Bacon: Nature’s candy!
Every meal should have a protein source and at least one vegetable; add some fruits and nuts. Avoid dairy and grains, or only eat them in minimal quantities.
Now, I can already see your brow furrowing, and you probably have the following question: “What about rice and pasta? That’s all I eat when I travel!” I get it — the cheap backpacker diet consists of rice, beans, and pasta — the most calories for the least amount of money (usually freeing up more money for more drinking, haha).
These foods are pretty much just calories and carbs. If you’re trying to be healthy, make sure you are eating protein and vegetables too.Consuming some rice or pasta or beans is fine; just don’t make it the only thing you eat, just so you can drink more. Your body will thank you, I promise.
This is something I struggled with when I began traveling, until I made a commitment to myself to start eating better, which required me to start spending more money on food (to get protein, vegetables, etc.). I either saved up more money before I went on my trip (a few bucks can mean a great meal in many countries!) or saved it elsewhere (by spending fewer nights out drinking).
It requires a bit of discipline, but if you’re committed to staying healthy and not wrecking your body (and waistline!) while traveling, it requires you to make some changes.
You don’t need to just eat broccoli and chicken when traveling and ignore anything that tastes good. Instead, try to make 80% of your meals healthy, and then eat whatever you want the other few meals. Your body won’t balloon up after one bad meal, but if you let one bad meal become a month of eating poorly, it will cause problems.
So find balance: if you are going to eat a big unhealthy dinner, eat a small breakfast and lunch. If you just had a massive breakfast, skip lunch — it evens out at the end of the day. Skipping a meal can be called intermittent fasting and can be really beneficial actually!
I also implement the “never two in a row” rule. I never eat two bad meals in a row. If I’m in a location known for something unhealthy and delicious, I make sure the meals before and after are really healthy so one bad meal doesn’t become a habit.
The Nomadic Matt Nutrition Travel Strategy:
- Eat real food! Mostly vegetables, some protein, and then fruit and nuts.
- Beans, rice, sweet potatoes, and potatoes are OK in moderation.
- Avoid processed junk, sugar, and liquid calories like soda, juice, and so on.
- Implement the “never two in a row rule.”
Party with Purpose
I love parties. I’ll gladly stay up, stay out, and party with the best of them whenever there’s a chance something epic could go down. Just ask Matt! (Actually, don’t ask Matt — he knows too much.)
Here’s something you already know: drinking alcohol isn’t exactly healthy for you. But then again, neither is staying up too late, not spending enough time in the sunlight, spending too much time in the sunlight, playing video games for too long, eating unhealthy foods, etc.
And yet we all do lots of these things; we have to make trade-offs while we live our lives and have some fun.
I believe drinking can be done occasionally, in moderation, and a healthy lifestyle can still be achieved. If you decide that you want to drink, good for you. If you decide that you don’t want to drink, that’s fine too. You know yourself best: Be smart.
So, rather than tell you to give up drinking, let’s find a way to fit in into your schedule so that it allows you to be happy WITHOUT making your waistline bulge and giving you a raging headache.
Here’s the Nomadic Matt Healthy Drinking Strategy:
- Wine and liquor (sipped slowly) without mixers are the “healthiest” options.
- Light beers and good beers are next best, in moderation (duh).
- Sugary mixed drinks or energy drink-and-alcohol combos (I see you, Thailand!) are terrible for you. Sugar is literally the devil.
- Drink water between each drink. It works like a charm, I promise.
Now, calories from drinks can really add up, as can the crappy food you consume when you’re drunk…so try to party with a purpose. Wine, beer, liquor. Know yourself, and be smart about it.
You can also have some fun with it if you’re crazy like me. In Croatia during Yacht Week last year, I came up with a rule that I had to do 10 squats and 10 push-ups every morning for each drink consumed the night before. What started out as a joke among my boatmates suddenly became an accountability tactic. They GLADLY helped me count my beverages and then count my push-ups the next morning on the deck of the yacht.
Be Active, and Have Fun
Theodore Roosevelt, an adventurer in his own right, said it best: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Instead of trying to be perfect, we can be “good enough” while we’re traveling. There are often once-in-a-lifetime experiences that require you to go off your food or exercise routine.
Exercise doesn’t need to consume your life either. It can be as simple as making an effort to sign up for a walking tour, opting to ride a bike through a city and getting lost on purpose, or hiking on small trips to prepare yourself for bigger trips.
You can also mix in some activities that don’t FEEL like exercise — but are:
- Tango lessons in Argentina
- Capoeira training in Brazil
- Muay Thai training in Thailand
- Hiking anywhere and everywhere!
Regardless of your level of fitness, there are fun activities native to the countries you’re visiting that can make for a great way to meet new people, train in an activity that is new to you, and get your heart racing! I like to think of them as missions or quests to complete in addition to just seeing the sights, but that’s just the nerd in me.
The Nomadic Matt Strategy of Healthy Awesome Traveling:
- Make exercise part of who you are. Walk more. Say yes to hikes.
- Strength-train at least once per week. Follow the playground workout!
- Eat real food. Don’t just go for cheap calories all the time.
- Never eat two bad meals in a row.
- Party with purpose! Drink water, too. Sugar is bad.
- Do the best you can. Every bit counts!
Remember, you don’t need to be “all or nothing” — you just need to be good enough. And every decision helps! Thanks again for reading, and I hope you take one piece of advice from today and use it to help you on your next trip!
Steve Kamb is the author of Level Up Your Life, now available in bookstores nationwide. When he’s not traveling the world, he runs NerdFitness.com, a worldwide community of average Joes and Jills helping each other live better lives.
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- SafetyWing (best for everyone)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional evacuation coverage)
Ready to Book Your Trip?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use when I travel. They are the best in class and you can’t go wrong using them on your trip.