“Being entirely honest with oneself,” said Sigmund Freud, “is a good exercise.” And to be entirely honest, the only time I thoroughly enjoy exercise is when it doesn’t feel like exercise at all. Tell me I’m on a weight-loss program that requires 10,000 steps a day and I immediately want to stretch out on the sofa with a book. But invite me to stroll through an unfamiliar city and I can walk for hours without a care in the world or a thought about how many calories I’m burning.
You don’t have to work hard to build physical activity into a typical road trip. Often your day will include plenty of aimless wandering, hotel stairs, and sightseeing. I was staggered to learn how many miles it takes to explore a major museum. In “The Museum Diet — How to lose weight on holiday” a blogger calling herself Tour Guide Tammy calculated walking distances for (among others) the Louvre in Paris (8 miles), the Victoria and Albert in London (7.5 miles), the Smithsonian in Washington, DC (9 miles), and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (14 miles). Since each mile equals roughly 2000 steps, you can rest assured your visit to the Smithsonian will rack up somewhere around 18,000 steps; the Hermitage will come in around 28,000. That far exceeds most people’s daily goals — and just think of all the great art you get to see along the way. Talk about a win-win!
Tammy wasn’t convinced this was the best workout plan. “To be honest, there’s a fine line between burning off those carbs and enjoying yourself on holiday,” she wrote. “Despite losing pounds on my last cultural adventure, I’m starting to think that the Museum Diet isn’t really the solution after all. First, there’s the strong possibility of ‘museum overload’ and fatigue as you traipse around miles and miles of corridors. Just look at this photo of my partner Tony after a full day spent at the Met and Guggenheim Museums in New York.” [Click here to see poor Tony in a dazed and exhausted condition.] “He looks like a zombie! There’s also the potential damage to your feet and joints. Not to mention, family relationships and your sanity. Perhaps it’s better to embark on a proper adventure holiday like a walking trip in Nepal or trekking across Colorado?”
Having trekked through Nepal, I can tell you that at the end of every day, Rich and I appeared a lot more zombie-like than Tony did. In fact, there have been many, many moments on the road when we looked and felt like the living dead.
But Tammy does have a point. If you’re not a fan of fine art, then a six-hour hike through marble halls lined with Old Masters will leave you footsore and glassy-eyed. I love museums, but frankly, even I blanched a bit at the idea of touring both the Met and the Guggenheim in one day. But if you’re in a place you enjoy — whether you’re hiking along a mountain path, strolling through an ancient palace, or seeking the next congenial café — walking for pleasure, rather than out of obligation to a fitness regimen, is a great way to go.
The other major form of exercise Rich and I enjoy when traveling is yoga. When you need to get out the kinks from long hours on a train or plane, try a few of the asanas (postures) that yogis have been refining for thousands of years. If you’re new to yoga, or in the mood to turn off your brain and follow along in zen-like (or zombie-like) tranquility, try one of the countless YouTube videos. Lately several friends have recommended Yoga with Adriene, and her Travel Yoga — Revitalizing Flow, shot on a lagoon in Sayulita, Mexico, is a good way to ease into practicing.
Rich loves to swim and was delighted to discover that SwimmersGuide.com has lists of public pools in countries around the world. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit he has rarely actually visited one of these pools, as walking and yoga are his preferred forms of exercise when away from home. But it’s a great resource and he wanted me to mention it here.
Strange Gyms vs. Your Own Workout
Trying to find a gym on the road is a dodgy business. By the time you’ve learned that your hotel’s gym closed two years ago, and you’ve checked out the nearby facility with glitzy lights and pounding music, the one with a half-inch of grime on every surface, the pick-up parlor, and a few other nonstarters, it’s time to pack up and hit the road again. You're wise to design your own regimen, at least to serve as a backup when no decent gym is available. One good resource for doing this is Lise Cartwright’s No Gym Needed: Quick and Simple Workouts for Gals on the Go. (Guys, don’t worry, these exercises are fine for you, too.) No doubt there are good YouTube videos as well, but so far all the ones I’ve seen feature terrifyingly musclebound hosts who seem convinced they're auditioning for a job running a boot camp. If you know of a good video, I'd like to hear about it!
The most important thing to remember about travel and exercise is that they’re both meant to be fun. If walking, stretching, and swimming feel good and help you get in shape for the next adventure, wonderful! But try not to burden yourself with an exaggerated sense of obligation – or worse, guilt — if the stars don’t align and you just can’t manage your usual workout. As Freud (rather surprisingly) put it, “If you can’t do it, give up.”
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California.
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