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How to stay in shape while traveling (without being obsessive)

2 simple fitness & nutrition lessons that have helped me stay in shape while traveling around the world.


“You’ve got to be kidding me. 12 grams of sugar…in this little thing?”

I’m standing in the canned food aisle in a grocery store.

In Mexico.

It’s December, a couple of weeks before Christmas, but outside it’s bright and sunny. Too sunny, really. The heat and humidity are relentless. Stepping outside feels like stepping inside a sauna: two minutes and you’re drenched in sweat.

But here in this no-named grocery store—which feels like a cross between a rural Walmart and a Dollar Store that happens to sell food—I’m walking around in air-conditioned bliss.

Bliss…until I get to the canned vegetables and examine the nutritional labels.

Every single can of peas, carrots, beans, or corn that I pick up has sugar added to it. Like, unreasonable amounts of sugar.

“Well, Nate, why don’t you just buy fresh vegetables?”

Good question.

Here’s why: To get fresh vegetables in our neighborhood, you must go to the local markets (miles away, no car, sweltering heat), pick the best-looking pieces (not old or covered in flies), bring them home, and then wash them in a silver-nitrate solution to kill any bacteria (annoying).

And so, convenience wins.

By this time, of course, I’ve pretty much embraced Mexican culture. The people are incredibly friendly and helpful. (I hack my way through conversations with a combination of broken Spanish, Google Translate, and lots of pointing.)

I look forward to Tuesday nights, where my girlfriend and I join dozens of 70-year-olds in the town square and pretend that we know how to dance the cha-cha.

I’ve even gotten used to the barking dogs who seem to materialize on random rooftops and scare the living shit out of me.

Dog on roof.
This happens frequently enough to be a thing. But infrequently enough to be ready for it.

But still: 12 grams of sugar in a 6-oz can of green beans?

Whatever.

I curse my privileged, organic-food-store-loving self and put it in my cart. After paying and beginning the sweaty trek back to my apartment, I make a promise to myself:

I will not look at another nutritional label for the remainder of my time in Mexico.

In the grand scheme of things, it just doesn’t matter.

9 months of living out of my suitcase (and out of my comfort zone)

Vampire antics.
We’re traveling together. She’s used to my vampire antics by now.

For the past 9 months, Richelle and I have been traveling around the world and working from our laptops. I’ve had the fortune of being able to work remotely for the past decade—coaching, consulting, and writing—but I’ve mostly chosen to stay in US cities while taking frequent vacations to different countries.

But this trip is different. In mid-2015, we sold most of our stuff, put the rest in storage, and set out to live month-to-month in various locations.

So far we’ve been to Mexico, Thailand, Vietnam, and Croatia, spending 4-8 weeks in each location. We’re not quite sure where we’re going next or for how long we’ll continue to travel this way. But for now, it’s a cool experiment that allows us to explore other cultures and meet new people.

One thing I’ve learned above all else: Traveling in this way forces you to get out of your comfort zone. It makes you learn and adapt, whether you want to or not.

For example:

  • Don’t know where to buy a SIM card for your phone? Figure it out.
  • At a restaurant and don’t know how to read the menu? Point at something and hope for the best.
  • Ants take over your kitchen and your landlord doesn’t seem to care? Suck it up and eat around the ants.

Another thing you have to learn: How to stay in shape while traveling.

Which is what this article is about.

Before we continue, though, I have a confession: We will not be talking about how to reduce carbs, find the best gym, or avoid local delicacies in favor of eating chicken and broccoli alone in our hotel room.

Depending on where you’re at, sometimes that stuff just isn’t possible. Also, it sucks.

(I never understood why people would travel halfway around the world to sit in a hotel room and eat at the attached restaurant. I’d rather eat weird street food, try homemade rice whiskey, and see what happens.)

But staying in good shape is important to me. And over the past 9 months, I’ve had to learn how to be more flexible in my approach to exercise and nutrition.

Flexibility, it turns out, is something most people could use some more of.

Especially those of us who are currently (or used to be) consumed by working out and eating healthy—to the point where it runs our life and burns us out. As a recovering fitness junkie, I speak from experience of course.

So with that in mind, here are two simple fitness and nutrition lessons I’ve learned and embraced since being on the road—with suggestions for how you can try them yourself.

2 simple (yet powerful) fitness & nutrition lessons I’ve learned while traveling.

Lesson 1: Eating the same meal every day can eliminate decision-fatigue, help you stay consistent, and give you the freedom to try new foods.

Here’s what we ate every single morning in Mexico: Eggs, beans, canned veggies, salsa, and hot sauce (with fruit and peanut butter on the side).

The reason: We wanted at least one meal to have a healthy amount of protein, good fat, and veggies in it. That way, no matter what else we ate that day (lard, refried beans, piles of tortillas, dried grasshoppers served with mescal) we could feel good that we covered some of our nutritional bases.

With everything else in flux and decision-fatigue at an all-time high—navigating a new country can be incredibly taxing, especially at first—it was nice to fall back on a dead-simple, cheap, healthy meal we knew how to make in 4 minutes.

This one meal allowed us to “eat healthy” and explore the local culinary scene at the same time.

Try this:

Pick one meal and eat it once per day, every single day this week.

Struggle with making good food choices? This will help you eliminate decision fatigue (“What should I cook?”) and help you become more consistent with your nutrition.

Obsessive about the nutritional content of your meals? Eating the same meal every day will help you feel good that you’re covering your bases, while allowing you to relax your nutritional rules for the rest of the day.

Try some bread. Go ahead and eat some dessert (even if it’s not a “cheat day”). In short, see what it’s like to not be so militant about your nutrition. Like me, you may find it allows you more psychological freedom—with little to no negative physical effects.

(Another way to put it: You’ll stop being such a pretentious asshole and actually enjoy the pasta dinner your partner’s family made for you; and you’ll still look and feel good.)

Lesson 2: You can maintain muscle mass and stay lean—without going to a gym.

We’ve been on the road for 9 months so far. For 3 of those months we didn’t step foot inside a gym. (When you’re staying in local neighborhoods instead of hotels, gyms are often too far away or nonexistent.)

So instead, we’ve had to get creative with our workouts.

Nate on a rooftop.
Playing around on a rooftop in Bangkok

We’ve lifted giant 20-liter water bottles. We’ve done handstands and pull-ups on rooftop terraces. We’ve taken Muay Thai kickboxing lessons.

Once, in Mexico, I got my ass kicked in a 5-on-5 full court basketball game. In Vietnam we stayed in a 3-story villa and ran the stairs every morning.

Every place we’ve lived, we have found a way to move and exercise—if only for 20 minutes at a time. (Which is 20 times better than doing nothing.)

Of course, I still love going to the gym. I find deadlifts, squats, weighted chin-ups, and kettlebell presses just as fun and helpful now as I did years ago. But now I know I don’t need the gym. And that feels like progress.

Try this:

Expand your idea of what “working out” means. If you go to a gym 3-4 days per week, try taking a day to do something else instead. Go bouldering, walk to the park and workout on the playground equipment, or throw a frisbee around. Do something to challenge your body in a new way.

After all, you may not always have access to a gym. You may not always have time for the gym. You may not always want to go to the gym.

And what will you do then? Give up?

If your health and fitness is important to you—and if you want to stay in shape long-term—then you must find ways to separate your identity from the gym and learn how to exercise in other ways.

Otherwise you risk falling off the wagon whenever life gets busy and you can’t follow your old routine.

What’s the last vacation or work trip you took—and how did you stay in shape?

Leave me a comment below.

I’d love to hear about your adventures—and help out if you have any questions.