5 Ways to Stay Healthy When Traveling

By Dimity McDowell, Experience Life

I don’t care what that old cliché says. Ask anyone who travels on a regular basis and they’ll tell you: Getting there is most definitely not half the fun. At least not if you’re a health-conscious person. Traveling, whether for business or pleasure, can wreak havoc on everything from your meticulous workout routine to your measured-down-to-the-last-carb eating plan. The result is a potential double whammy. Not only do you feel less than your best self while on your trip, you may also find that, upon returning, you’ve lost the motivation and momentum to return to your healthy habits.

While keeping in shape and eating well on the road can be challenging, it’s far from impossible. Particularly if you’ve been more or less on the straight and narrow while at home. “If you’re already exercising, eating right and sleeping decently, you’ll have a solid foundation to stay healthy and deal with the stress you confront when traveling,” says Alisa Cohn, an executive coach in Brookline, Mass. So before you add another mile to your frequent-flier tally, heed the following healthy-travel tips, which take you from pre-takeoff to post-touchdown and everything in between.

Next: Arrive in Good Shape

Arrive in Good Shape
Whether you’re going by plane, train or automobile, you can usually count on one thing: encountering some surprises and setbacks. In terms of logistics, it might be a delayed train, a massive traffic jam or a lost suitcase. In terms of your personal regimen, it might be a missed meal or an especially uncomfortable hotel room. That’s no reason to stay home, of course; you just need to adjust your everything-will-be- flawless expectations.

“Before you head out the door, accept that obstacles will pop up, and have a strategy to deal with them,” says Cohn. Long lines at the airport? Bring reading or listening materials (books on tape are ideal) to pass the time. A two-hour stop on the tarmac before you even take off? Engage in a series of deep breaths to center yourself, then pull out a notebook and start writing some of those long-put-off letters to dear old friends.

Even if your trip is a best-case scenario, you need to be especially mindful of your physical health. If you’re flying, staying hydrated is your No. 1 priority. Most plane cabins have between 10 and 20 percent humidity, which puts them on a par with most of the world’s deserts. To counteract the aridness, which can sap your energy, squelch your immune system and slow your blood flow, drink half an ounce of water for every pound you weigh, per day. (This formula applies once you touch ground, too – the more hydrated you are, the better your body and mind will function.)

It might also be wise to bring your own supply of H2O; a recent study from the Environmental Protection Agency found that one in eight airplanes – or nearly 13 percent of the domestic and international airline fleet – has water that fails to meet U.S. safety standards.

Skip caffeine and alcohol, as they further dehydrate you. Instead, when the beverage cart comes around, ask for cranberry or orange juice. “Cranberry juice is full of antioxidants and is a quick boost to your immune system,” says Philip Goglia, founder of Performance Fitness Concepts, a nutrition and fitness clinic in Los Angeles. (It’s also full of sugar, though, so don’t overdo it.) An 8-ounce glass of orange juice contains a solid dose of vitamin C (good for immunity, which can suffer during travel), plus 400 to 500 milligrams (mg) of valuable potassium. The body excretes excessive amounts of potassium and sodium during long flights, according to Johnson Space Center researchers, which can lead to decreased muscle strength and diminished physical and mental reflexes.

Or consider another good, low-cal drink option with a vitamin and mineral boost: Stow a few packets of Emer’-gen-C drink mix in your carry-on. Pour a packet in a big bottle of water before you take off and you’ll have your beverage needs handled for the entire flight.

Nowadays, the food on planes is as scarce as it is scary, so be sure to bring along enough wholesome food and snacks to hold you over (pack some snacks for the airport, too, so those hubcap-size cinnamon buns or king-size bags of Fritos won’t tempt you). Strive for lighter and more nutritious foods that can handle a few hours without refrigeration, like raisins, string cheese, trail mix, individual packets of applesauce or a pita filled with spinach and goat cheese.

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Because traveling requires long bouts of sitting, periodically standing up, walking around and stretching are vital to keeping your blood flowing freely and your body functioning optimally. On an airplane, you should get up and move around at least once an hour and, in a car, stop at least every two hours for a stretch break. If you’re stuck in your seat, try to move your legs regularly. Flex and point your toes, do circles with your ankles, extend your legs at the knees. For another good seated stretch, place your left hand on the middle of your right thigh and twist your head, neck and back until you feel a good stretch in your back. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side. Stay active on the ground too: While waiting for your flight, walk around the concourse. You’ll have plenty of sitting time on the plane.

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Next: Tips for Hotel Workouts

Make Time to Sweat
Once you reach your destination, you might feel tired or jet-lagged, but keep in mind that when you’re on the road, exercise is the best way to keep your energy levels high and stress at bay, says Suzanne Schlosberg, author of Fitness for Travelers: The Ultimate Workout Guide for the Road (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). Also, when your days are filled with dawn-to-dusk business meetings or other activities, your exercise time might be the only peaceful moments you have to yourself.

To reap the benefits of exercise, though, you have to make it a priority and schedule it into your daily itinerary. “Doing it first thing in the morning is the best way to guarantee you’ll get a workout in,” says Gregory Florez, a personal trainer and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise.

  • If possible, book a hotel with at least a basic gym. No dice? Use your room. Bring along exercise bands, which can double as dumbbells for weight training, a Pilates ring, a yoga video or DVD (call ahead to see if rooms have VCRs or DVD players) or a jump rope.
  • Not into packing your own equipment? Ask the front desk for a map of the area and recommendations for walking and running routes.
  • Bad weather? Hit the hotel stairs or do a strength routine in your room using just your body weight. Schlosberg recommends a circuit of pushups, triceps dips, back extensions, crunches (both regular and twisting, to work your obliques), lunges and heel raises. Do eight to 20 repetitions of each move.
  • Pack your fitness essentials: running or cross-training shoes, socks, a sweat- wicking shirt, shorts and, for women, a sports bra. If you’ll be exercising outside, depending on the temperature, you might need sweatpants, running tights, a windbreaker or heavier jacket, a hat and a pair of gloves. Don’t forget your heart-rate monitor. (OK, so you may have to pack an extra bag, but it will be worth it.)
  • If you’re a dedicated exerciser who follows a tried-and-true routine, reset your expectations for workouts on the road. An all-or-nothing attitude is nothing but trouble when time is tight and so many factors are out of your control. “Aim to maintain – not improve – your fitness level,” advises Florez.
  • If you have only 30 minutes, and you’re used to an hourlong workout, dial up the intensity by adding intervals to cardio sessions.
  • One last tip: Schedule a quick workout as soon as you arrive. It will help you lose that restless, groggy feeling you get from sitting too long, and it will also improve your chances of sleeping well that night. Try to arrive early enough so you can check into your room, drop your luggage and don your workout wear. It doesn’t have to be a long workout – even 15 minutes will make a huge difference. “But doing it right away is critical,” says Florez, “otherwise, your chances of exercising dissipate dramatically. Once you begin to check email, switch on the TV or start making arrangements with friends or colleagues, it’s all over.”
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    Next: Snacks for On-the-Go
    Eat Right and Often
    With a Burger King beckoning at every freeway exit and airport concourse, and executive-dining establishments serving up giant portions of heavy food, traveling can set you up for weight gain. The key here is to be strategic, and to use the support systems at your disposal.

    The cardinal rule: Don’t wait to eat until you’re really hungry. “If you do, it’s a guarantee you’ll overeat when you get the chance,” says nutritionist Goglia. In the morning, don’t leave your hotel without eating an energizing, healthy breakfast. Goglia advises setting up a standing room-service delivery of oatmeal or eggs and fresh fruit. On your day of arrival, ask that it be delivered at a specific time every morning, so you don’t have to think of it the night before. If you know that stopping for lunch might not be possible, request a box lunch – like a grilled chicken sandwich, fresh fruit and an oatmeal cookie – to be delivered when your breakfast arrives.

    When you head out for the day, bring along a few nutritious snacks – such as raw almonds, raisins, apples, bananas or oranges – and munch on them throughout the day to fend off hunger attacks. Room service not an option? Hit the local grocery store and load up on bananas, apples, trail mix, whole-grain crackers, bottled water and other nonperishables to keep in your room. Don’t be afraid to offload some of the stuff in your minibar to make space for your self-supplied yogurt, juice or hardboiled eggs.

    At dinner, the trick is to avoid getting stuffed with oversized servings that can exacerbate jet lag and other digestive woes. Begin with a broth-based soup, salad or veggie-based appetizer, advises Chris Filardo, MS, RD, of the Produce for Better Health Foundation in Wilmington, Del.

    “Studies have shown that you eat about the same volume of food every day,” she says, “but the caloric content can vary greatly based on the choices you make, so fill up with low-density salad and soup before diving into your more substantial entrée.”

    If you’re not particularly hungry, consider ordering two appetizers in place of an entrée (of course, if all they have is popcorn shrimp and buffalo wings, don’t bother). If you’re up for both dinner and dessert, play a game of if/then: If you’re craving a huge steak, order one – but then choose berries or similar fruit for dessert. If you’re drooling over a slab of chocolate cake, have it – but go with grilled fish and steamed veggies for your entrée.

    Next: Tips for getting better sleep

    Catch Some Z’s
    Sleep is as vital to your health as proper exercise and nutrition, but it’s a much less tangible goal when traveling. “You can’t will yourself to go to sleep if you’re not tired,” says B. T. Westerfield, MD, president of the Kentucky Sleep Society. You can, however, lower the barriers to a good night’s slumber, which include, among other things, jet lag, an uncomfortable pillow and external noise.

    When it comes to jet lag, realize that for every time zone you travel through, it generally takes your body a day to adjust. Going from Chicago to Minneapolis won’t throw you out of whack, but flying from Philadelphia to Seattle will. If it’s possible, plan on arriving a day or two before any big meetings so you can adjust, advises Westerfield. There are also some measures you can take to minimize jet lag.

  • About a week before your trip, adjust your schedule at home to slowly integrate the new time zone. If you’re flying from the East Coast to the West Coast, for instance, stay up an hour later than normal. (If you’re flying in the opposite direction, get up an hour earlier than usual.)
  • On travel day, try to schedule your flight so you arrive in the early evening and then stay up until 10 p.m. If that’s not possible, and you arrive in the morning or afternoon and need a nap, take one no longer than two hours, and no closer than five hours before bedtime. You might also try an anti-jet-lag homeopathic remedy ( www.nojetlag.com) or anti-jet-lag diet ( www.antijetlagdiet.com) for additional support.
  • If you have trouble sleeping that first night or two, you can opt for a natural sleep aid like melatonin. Take 3 mg to 5 mg about three hours before you wish to sleep, suggests Westerfield. Several studies have found that melatonin can be effective for preventing or reducing jet lag, particularly for crossing five or more time zones and when traveling east, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
  • Exercise before you travel and right when you arrive, according to a University of Toronto study. Also soak up some sun as soon as you land. Natural sunlight is the best way to reset your internal clock.
  • At night, follow your usual bedtime routine, says Eileen McGill, the sleep concierge at New York City’s Benjamin Hotel. “If you always read or shower before bed, do the same thing on the road,” she says. And bring some personal items from home to re-create your regular environment. If you’re attached to a pillow from home, pack it. Bring a favorite, soothing bedside picture and some lavender essential oil to freshen a stale-smelling room and scent your linens before bed.
  • If you’re a sensitive sleeper, consider accessories like an eye mask to block out light and a sound machine to provide a soothing background of “white noise.” Foam earplugs have saved many a traveler located too close to a noisy ice machine, elevator or intersection.
  • If you’re tense, take a warm bath to work out the kinks. Finally, ask for an extra blanket and then set the thermostat to a sleep-enhancing mid-60s, advises McGill. A too-hot room will have you tossing all night.
  • Next: How to Reenter with Health

    Aim for a Righteous Reentry
    You’ve successfully survived your trip and are on the way home. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that your trip ends when you walk through the door and plunk your luggage down. You need to make a smooth transition into your regular life, and that requires some forethought.

    Try to allow yourself a day for reentry into the real world before returning to work. For example, if you have to work on Monday, then come home on Saturday. If you are returning to a significant other or small children, stop thinking about work on the trip home from the airport and focus on the people who will greet you. “If your kids or your spouse tumble out of the house to meet you, and you’re still working in your head, that’ll just cause unneeded aggravation,” says Libby Mills, a Philadelphia-based lifestyle coach.

    If you’ll be coming home to an empty house, straighten it up before you leave (being greeted by chaos and dirty dishes is a huge energy drain). Have some kind of quick, healthy meal available, like an organic frozen dinner or pasta with steamed vegetables, so you’re not tempted to call Domino’s. Drink a big glass of water to rehydrate and go for a 20- to 40-minute brisk walk to clear your head.

    If you’ve traveled long or far, give yourself a break when it comes to diving back into your regular fitness routine, advises personal trainer Florez. You may be unmotivated or jet-lagged for the first few days, and pushing yourself too hard could backfire, sapping your energy and lowering your immunity. “On your first day back, aim for half your normal workout and remember to devote a good amount of time to stretching,” says Florez. “Stretching helps work out muscle tension and the accumulated physical and mental stress that come with travel.”

    For the next two to three days, strive for 10 to 15 percent less intensity than your usual routine, then resume your regular sessions at full strength. “However, if you’re feeling unusual fatigue or muscle soreness, dial it back again for at least two more days,” Florez says. Otherwise, you risk both additional fatigue and an injury, which could set you back significantly.

    The last step: Take stock of what went well on your trip, and what could have gone better. Were there specific things you wished you had brought along or planned for? Keep a running pack-and-plan travel list on your computer, then adjust it following each voyage. Tape the list to your carry-on so you’ll have it on hand when you prepare to go again.

    Prepare well, harvest your own insight, heed your own advice and, before long, you’ll have healthy travel down to a science.

    Dimity McDowell is a freelance writer who specializes in sports and fitness.

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    SIDEBAR: Resources
    The Athletic-Minded Traveler: Where to Work Out and Stay When Fitness Is a Priority by Jim Kaese and Paul Huddle (SoCal Publishing, 2004) – A comprehensive listing of convenient gyms (and their facilities and equipment), hotels by gyms and popular running routes.

    Fitness for Travelers: The Ultimate Workout Guide for the Road by Suzanne Schlosberg (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) – A how-to for road warriors, this user-friendly book covers everything from sample swim workouts to illustrations of traveling lunges.

    Healthy Highways: The Traveler’s Guide to Healthy Eating by Nikki and David Goldbeck (Ceres Press, 2004) – A catalog of the basics for 1,900 natural-food stores, plus vegetarian and health-conscious restaurants, organized by state.

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    Roberto MARINI
    Roberto MARINI1 months ago

    thank you for these useful advice

    Jennifer C.
    Past Member 4 years ago

    Good ideas. Thanks for sharing.

    DobieMax Wojcik
    DobieMax WoBib4 years ago


    Maija L.
    Mi L.4 years ago

    thank you..but I think usually the exercise comes during the day at least when I'm traveling. Usually walking is the main way of going to one place to another..and seeing new things also makes you quite tired in the end of the day.

    Fallon R.
    Fallon R.4 years ago

    Hope this can help me. I love to travel so thanks for the article and I hope it comes in handy.

    Sonny Honrado
    Sonny Honrado4 years ago

    Thanks especially for the eating right.

    Loo Samantha
    Loo sam4 years ago

    thanks for the wonderful article.

    Gita Sasi Dharan
    Gita Sasi Dharan4 years ago

    Thank you.

    Kathryn M.

    A very thoughtful piece with much good advice. Thank you. However there are two points that popped up for me. First, wherever and whenever I board an aircraft I am barred from taking any liquid aboard, so I must dump my water bottle before going through security. Airplane water is the only option. Second: I take exception to advice instructing me to "take along bottled water". Aren't we trying 'get off the bottle'? Single use plastic bottles are a plague to the environment.

    Liny T.
    Liny T.4 years ago

    thank you!