Struggling to find ways to stay fit when you are travelling? Here’s our favourite ways to exercise no matter where you are.
I wasn’t always interested in exercising. When I was at uni, I would do the odd yoga class maybe once a week. Then when I started working in Manchester, we signed up for bikram yoga classes twice a week - which we absolutely hated but kept going to anyway. (There is nothing like seeing a random man’s toe sweat drip onto your mat.)
Plus, any positive results from the bikram were cancelled out by the huge macroni and cheese I would make for us after each session. We also did a bit of swimming now and then, but honestly, on a grey and wet Manchester day (of which there are many) I just wanted to sit in my jogging bottoms and watch TV.
And so it was until we moved to Zambia. As I watched Vincent repeatedly lug our 25kg suitcases, filled with clothes, food and work supplies on and off transport and around airports, red faced and sweating, I felt strangely impotent. I wanted to help but my Asian upper body (okay, maybe a tad racist) was just not playing ball. It wasn’t fair and something had to change.
A year into our lives in Zambia, we discovered that there was a gym almost next door to us, run by an amazing lady who offered all sorts of classes for super cheap prices. Suddenly at 6am, we were going to circuit training, followed by power yoga at 8am twice a week. There was Step, Spinning, Pilates and at some point or other over the next couple of years I tried all of them. And as I found myself growing in strength, I realised that I could even help a bit with those suitcases.
When we moved to Malaysia, our training actually went up a level. We’d been working out in our condo gym but were getting bored and after work it always seemed to be full of huge sweaty men who spent most of their time doing one rep of a really heavy bicep curl (cue grunting and intense eye contact in the mirror) and then spending the remainder of their time taking selfies or watching us working out. Ugh.
So we joined a gym and were introduced to a whole new world of fitness: High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), kettle bell classes and Brazillian Jiu Jitsu. We were going to the gym four or five times a week, sometimes for two hours a day and we were loving it. (Okay, slight correction…I was loving it. Vincent perhaps less so). We made friends, learnt a martial art and I gave myself the goal of having ‘Michelle Obama arms’ before our wedding. I mean, a girl’s gotta have some goals.
But then we decided to swap our comfortable lives in Malaysia for a more itinerant lifestyle. And how the hell were we going to keep up with our fitness if we were always moving around?
Now, if you have read this far and are thinking why on earth would we need to bother about staying fit just to travel around, let me tell you - this isn’t just about vanity (obviously a small part is) and being able to look good in photos for the ‘Gram (couldn’t give a shit about that really). Obviously I want to be able to fit into all my clothes (because I don’t really have money to buy any more) but in all honesty, our travel style means that we need to have a reasonable level of physical fitness.
Running across Taipei Main train station and up and down stairs to catch a train leaving in five minutes with our 12kg backpacks on? Requires physical fitness. Hiking up Mount Bromo to see the sunrise? Requires physical fitness. Travelling with just carry-on luggage only? Requires physical fitness and the ability to nonchalantly saunter past check-in staff and cabin crew with a really heavy backpack hanging off one shoulder and making it look like hefting it up into the overhead cabins ain’t no thang.
However, we can’t sign up to a gym because we aren’t anywhere long enough to make having a subscription worthwhile. Lugging weights around with us isn’t realistic and would mess with our carry-on only vibe (plus would make travelling between destinations absolutely hellish). And the places we stay in are sometimes so small that there isn’t really that much space to work out in.
If this seems to be an impossible conundrum, fear not: in the last year and a half of long term travel (but thankfully sans elephant pants and dreadlocks) I’ve found a variety of ways to exercise on the road. If you are a frequent traveler or living the nomadic lifestyle like us and want to up your exercise game, read on!
1) Online Workout Videos
I have to credit a friend of mine for this suggestion while I was still in Malaysia and honestly it is one of the main things that has enabled us to maintain our fitness while we’ve been travelling.
There are a number of online streaming services offering workout videos but the numero uno for us has to be Fitness Blender. The major plus points are that all the workout videos on the site are totally free and they offer everything from HIIT, traditional strength training and kettlebell workouts to barre, pilates and yoga. You can filter by length, calorie burn, difficulty (I always want us to pick hardcore Level Five much to Vincent’s disgust), body focus, training type and even equipment and you can stream all the videos on your phone, tablet or laptop. Importantly there are a massive range of workouts (403 in total!) that require no equipment at all which is perfect when you are travelling.
Working out in the privacy of your own room means that you can wear what you want, be sweaty and disgusting without really caring and swear as much as you like (I’ve got some choice names for Daniel and Kelli from Fitness Blender, I am sorry to say).
If curating your own workout schedule from the free videos is too much work for your brain, Fitness Blender has a range of very affordable workout programmes they have put together to ensure that you don’t even have to think about what to do each day.
A two-week plan starts at $7.99 and the eight-week plan now costs $19.99 (previously $14.99). You get access to a calendar which you can also then use to schedule your own workouts and once you’ve paid for a programme you have access to it forever so you can use it over and over again. They even have a range of free five-day workout programmes to give you a taste of what a longer plan with them would be like. We’ve actually also done three of those back-to-back, which gave us a three-week totally free but curated exercise routine. Get in!
Our other go-to workout videos are Yoga with Adrienne on YouTube who we’ve been following for the last year. This lady makes me feel so happy and zen - when I start the day with one of her yoga routines, I feel like I can take on the world.
Again, all her videos are totally free and she has a huge range including power yoga, meditation, yoga for bedtime and even yoga for social anxiety and stress. We are currently doing another one of her 30 day yoga challenges (she launches a new one each year) and it is a great way to get into the habit of practicing yoga daily.
2) Improvise Your Own Weights
It might be a bit like Rocky, but if you are into strength training and don’t have access to a gym or weights, it is time to get your creative hat on. On this trip to Turkey we went around looking to buy some weights: as we were going to be in one place for three months, we figured it might be worth the investment, even if we had to leave them behind afterwards. Until we saw the price, that is. It was £18 to buy just one single kettlebell! Sad times. We were going to have to go back to the drawing board.
We decided to make our own weights instead by using empty water bottles. We have a range of sizes - 10 litre, 5 litre and 2.5 litre which we have filled up with rocks and water. We don’t know exactly how much they weigh but they are fairly heavy and suitable for all sorts of exercises from deadlifts and squats to chest flys and ventral raises.
Reusing the bottles like this also makes me feel a tiny bit less guilty for the amount of plastic we are adding to the environment. Even if you don’t have access to stuff like this, you can still improvise weights - in the past we’ve used blocks of wood, books and tins of beans taped together!
There are also lots of guides all over the internet on how to make your own weights. Vincent even made his own sandbag when we were living in Zambia!
Before we joined a gym in Zambia, we did a bit of running but it got annoying very quickly. Mainly because we were doing it in the day and Zambians, who all seem to be very ripped and don’t need to workout (because their daily lives naturally involve a lot of exercise) would find it hilarious. As a result, people would run alongside us (especially kids) shouting and laughing and in my sweaty I-can-barely-breathe state, it was all quite off putting. So we ended up having to run bleary eyed at 6am instead, when fewer people were around.
Having said this, running is free, doesn’t require any equipment (bar comfortable clothing and some decent shoes) and is a great way to explore a new place. So if you love running and feel like you can do it wherever you are, do it. Obviously, there will be some places where it’s either too chaotic or too dangerous to run or where running for women particularly is either culturally inappropriate (oh FFS) or invites lecherous comments or behaviour from men (yeah, thanks guys). Which is why we also have the other stuff on this list.
I’d suggest setting a goal like the distance you would like to complete or how long you would like to run for before you start out. And if you are running with someone else, agree that goal with them. I once agreed to go running with Vincent and he thought we’d be running for about 15 minutes before doing something else. But I wanted to run for longer and we ended up running from Glossop to Marple (almost 7 miles) and back. He was not a happy bunny and didn’t speak to me for several hours afterwards.
4) Start Skipping
Skipping isn’t just for boxers or little kids. It’s a fast and efficient way to get in a great cardiovascular workout, improves your coordination and burns major calories. And the best thing is that you can pretty much do it anywhere! Before we started going to the gym in Zambia, skipping routines were one of our main workouts and it really packed a punch! You can also easily pack a a skipping rope into your backpack (even with our carry-on only policy, we’ve got space for it) so it is a great workout option when you are travelling.
If you are looking for skipping rope workout inspo, there are plenty of routines available online for you to choose from depending on your coordination and fitness level. Fitness Blender also has a few workout videos that use a skipping rope here.
5) Resistance Bands
Strength training using resistance bands is a great addition to any fitness routine and like a skipping rope they are portable and lightweight so can travel anywhere with you. They are also extremely versatile - I didn’t actually realise how many exercises you could do with them from deadlifts, to rows and bicep curls, these bands are the shit!
The bands come in different thicknesses depending on how strong you are/how much resistance you want to work with. Some bands have handles but I prefer the closed loop bands because they are more versatile and compact.
6) Virtual workouts with friends
When I was living in Malaysia one of the things that motivated me to go to the gym was that I knew if I went MIA people would message me and ask where I was. Or ask me where I was the next time I turned up.
The guilt factor alone was enough to make sure that I took the train straight from work to the gym instead of heading off with my colleagues for a drink and a banana leaf rice. (The other main motivation for me going to the gym was of course to be able to eat many portions of said banana leaf rice without feeling guilty, because I’d actually done some exercise).
But when you are on the road it can be a struggle to motivate yourself to exercise and this can quickly descend into weeks of eating [insert delicious calorie-laden food here] everyday, not doing anything and then just feeling bad about it. Not a good situation and probably likely to be bad for your health in the long run.
Which is why I loved it when we arranged a virtual FaceTime workout with our friends from our old gym last year, in the run up to the Christmas holidays.
At our old gym we used to do high rep workouts for particular holidays (e.g. 1888 repetitions of different exercises just before Chinese New Year) and so we decided to do something similar just before Christmas. All of us suggested different exercises that we would like to include. The trainer shared the routine with us before the session and then on the day we did a FaceTime call for the duration of the class. It was a great feeling to be part of a class again and I really enjoyed it - especially as we were all dying and in pain together!
If you can’t arrange an actual virtual workout with friends, another way is to agree to do the same workout with a friend/friends on a particular day and then share how you found it with each other. That way you can hold each other accountable for doing it!
My sister and her gym buddies put together an MMA inspired workout (that they actually called the ‘Sasha’ workout - awww, I am honoured) and then sent it through to me to try. It was crazy and hellish and I am sure Vincent’s brow remained furrowed throughout, but I was motivated to complete it so I could give my sister feedback.
(I will admit that I withheld information from Vincent about the source of the workout i.e. my sister, because he would never have done it otherwise as he thinks we are both certifiably insane).
7) See if there’s any free classes in your area
Free? Is anything really free today? Well, you’d be surprised to hear that free exercise classes aren’t some kind of unicorn. If you are based in a city for a little while it’s worth checking out what’s going on in your area (and not just in relation to exercise) and most importantly if any of it requires no handing over of the valuable cashish.
In Chiang Mai for example. we found out that free hour-long yoga classes were being held twice a week at One Nimman Art and Shopping Centre in Nimmanhaemin. So for our five-week stay there we got to add a proper taught yoga class to our existing training schedule.
Back home in the UK, I’ve taken advantage of free gym trial passes (some even being valid for seven days!) to ensure that we get in a good workout. Some gyms even let you bring a friend for free for a few trial classes (I’ve done this both in KL and the UK) so if you’ve got a friend located where you are travelling and they attend a gym there, it’s definitely worth asking.
And that’s a wrap!
So those are my top tips on how to stay fit while travelling. It might not give you the rippling six pack abs you desire (soz can’t help you there, I am still waiting for mine to magically appear), but it will mean that you can climb up stairs and hike up a mountain without feeling like you are going to pass out. And in my book that is always a good thing.
We’re always looking for new ways to spice up our exercise routine (okay, well I am) and would love to hear your suggestions for how you stay fit on the road. Let us know in the comments below!