The Secret to Healthy Travel? Don’t Overthink It.

The Secret to Healthy Travel? Don’t Overthink It.

Last week, I arrived home from a 6-day trip to the Pacific Northwest – we spent about three days each in Portland and Seattle (work trip for Michael, fun trip for me!), and we had a fabulous time.

But for many people, travel can be a serious obstacle to maintaining healthy habits or seeing progress.

You know what I’m going to say: it doesn’t have to be that way.

Healthy travel – that is not a setback to weight loss or health goals – is possible.

I’ve written about travel before (as I travel quite a bit), but considering that one of my lengthier posts was permanently lost in the Great Site Crash of 2019, I’m going to add a few more thoughts to the conversation today while it’s still fresh on my mind!

First, let’s talk about mindset and the danger of the “on/off” button.

The On/Off Button

A red flag that I see in my clients’ thinking regarding travel – a sign that they’re really going to struggle – is language that sounds like there’s an “on/off” button for healthy habits. This kind of language frames healthy habits as a setting that can be turned on or off, instead of a collection of strategies and habits that can be adapted for many different situations.

When you have this on/off mentality, either it’s on, or it’s off. And this is a problem, because it’s a lot easier to stay off once you’re off.

Successful, sustainable healthy behaviors, on the other hand, tend to be fluid – gliding through life responsively with flexible guidelines, intuitive self-awareness, and a collection of fail-safe habits that work all the time regardless of environment.

The insight that most people miss is that flexibility and structure are not mutually exclusive – in fact, they’re perfect for each other.

Rigidity says: “I have to stick to my diet perfectly, and if I mess up I’m a complete failure.”

Flexibility and structure, instead, say: “I know what my targets are, and I’m going to get creative about how I can achieve my goals while I’m traveling.”

So let’s uninstall that on/off button, and instead see healthy travel for what it is: a fairly simple, straightforward set of guidelines that make progress easy and sustainable with just a little effort. You don’t have to be “all in” or “all out” – situations like travel give us the opportunity to keep our health goals in the big picture, practice strategies that we know work well for us, and avoid beating ourselves up when things don’t go as planned!

The bottom line? Don’t overthink it. Just do it.

So in this blog post, I’m going to lay out 10 suggestions for how to approach healthy travel with a flexible mindset that sets up success. Let’s get started!

Guidelines for Healthy Travel

Guideline 1: Exercise in the morning.

This one’s simple: when you’re on the road, establish a healthy morning routine. Leave your gym clothes out the night before, so it’s easy the next morning to jump into your exercise outfit and get started.

When I travel, I exercise pretty much every morning – it’s part of how I get ready in the morning.

Like I told a client this week, I would compare exercise more to a shower than to a bath, for example, in terms of how routine and ordinary it can be. It’s not something you have to set aside special time for – it’s just part of your getting ready routine.

Exercise can look many different ways, including:

  • Going for a run or walk to explore a new city
  • Reading a fun Kindle book on the stationary bike
  • Strength training using the hotel gym
  • Strength training with bodyweight exercises like squats, lunges, and planks
  • Doing yoga in your hotel room
  • Going to a local spin, yoga, or gym class

Exercising in the morning sets a positive tone for your day, boosts your mood, starts you off with a generous calorie burn, and puts you in a healthy frame of mind that can help inform eating choices later.

Guideline 2: Go to a grocery store.

I always use Google maps before I arrive in a new city to figure out how I’m going to get healthy snacks for the hotel room and for my backpack.

I almost always go to a grocery store and buy:

  • Fruit
  • Yogurt
  • Rice cakes
  • Carrots
  • Peanut butter and/or nuts
  • Granola
  • Oatmeal instant packets
  • Bottled water

If I have a hotel room with a kitchen, I may even buy foods like eggs, tortillas, and vegetables to make some easy meals, like this quesadilla from the Fit Smart Fast Cookbook:

Having some healthy foods on hand helps to prevent impulse dining out, and packs your diet with more nutrients, protein, and fiber.

Guideline 3: Know where to mindfully indulge, and know where to cut back.

There’s no hard and fast rule here, like: “Only eat out once a day.” Wouldn’t it be nice if life were so simple?

Instead, this is more about knowing yourself and what role food is playing on any particular day.

It’s extremely helpful to plan which meals are going to be more indulgent and how you’re going to balance that out, and it all depends on your priorities and the context of each day.

For example, while I was in Portland, one of my “must-do’s” was visiting Blue Star Donuts – it was my birthday, and I thought it would be fun to sample a Portland specialty! So on the day when I planned to enjoy a Mexican Hot Chocolate donut, I had half a ham-and-cheese omelette for breakfast and considered the donut my “carb” for breakfast. I was also more mindful of my eating the rest of the day, too, knowing that the donut was probably quite a bit richer than my typical breakfast.

Knowing where you want to indulge (and – furthermore – planning your indulgences) informs where you can cut back to balance out your overall day. This helps you to avoid the “I blew it” trap.

Guideline 4: Walk wherever and whenever you can.

Another way to maintain healthy habits is to raise your level of activity while traveling. This can actually be quite easy to do, because you may not have your normal life responsibilities of commuting to work, driving your kids to school, or sitting at your computer all day. All those freed-up minutes can be spent exploring!

If you’re staying in a city, it’s a great opportunity to walk everywhere. Of course, this means you need to bring comfortable shoes, like these favorites of mine – the platform Converse.

Guideline 5: Recreate aspects of your healthy home life.

Do you have healthy habits at home – specific routines that help you feel great and grounded? There’s no reason to stop them when you’re on the road!

For example, staying on an eating schedule can help. For me, the pattern of…

  • Breakfast
  • Lunch
  • Afternoon coffee/optional snack
  • Dinner
  • Evening snack

… helps me to stay centered. It’s what I do at home, so I already have the habit of pacing and spacing my meals to fit that structure. It’s not hard to do it on the road.

At home, for example, I have yogurt for my bedtime snack almost every night on a regular basis. On the road, it’s a little too complicated to make my chocolate mousse, but it’s no problem to buy single-serve Fage, Chobani, or Siggi’s non-fat plain yogurts, sweeten them with stevia, and top them with granola for a little crunch. It’s almost the same as home.

By keeping this routine in place, my overall eating schedule is anchored, even when other choices may be out of the ordinary.

Guideline 6: Look at menus before you go.

Planning and visualizing are incredibly helpful tools the it comes to healthy habits.

When you are planning to eat out, take a moment to look at the menu online and decide on your options before you go in-person.

This can help to remove you from impulsivity or the influence of slick marketing, atmosphere, or peer pressure. Instead, you can take a cool-headed minute to decide which choice is best for you and will most support your health on that particular day.

Again, this helps to prevent the “I blew it moment.”

Guideline 7: Keep breakfast and snacks lean and light.

When you’re traveling, you automatically lose some control over your meals. Instead of cooking mostly at home, you are in the position of making the best healthy choices you can at restaurants for lunch and dinner.

However, it’s easy to maintain a higher degree of influence over your breakfasts and snacks, even when you’re traveling. Breakfast choices, even at a hotel buffet, tend to be simple and straightforward, and you can pack your own snacks using Guideline 2.

For example, I try to keep traveling breakfasts light with eggs or egg whites, fruit, and oatmeal. I tend to pass on the sausage, potatoes, and extra bread – not because I don’t enjoy those foods, but because I can be sure that my later meals will be richer than usual and I can afford to pass on heavier breakfast items.

Similarly, I try to skip on extra snacking, especially in the afternoon, and just have something like a non-fat latte, an apple, or a handful of carrots.

Keeping snacks light and lean makes caloric room for the aspects of your eating that you can’t control at restaurants – how much butter they put on your fish, for example.

Guideline 8: Continue to prioritize fruit, vegetables, and protein.

I tell clients that when you travel (or even on holidays), the “rules” of healthful eating don’t change. Wherever you are, it’s still in your best interests to maintain a focus on getting enough lean protein, vegetables, and fruit in your diet every day.

As best you can, make lean proteins like chicken breast or fish the centerpieces of your meals. Make extra vegetable choices, like getting a side salad or side of steamed vegetables. Try to eat colorful fruits and vegetables at every meal, if at all possible – even at breakfast!

For example, our hotel had a happy hour daily in the afternoon where snack foods like cured meats, cheese, and vegetables were served. Each afternoon, I took advantage of the offerings to grab fresh food for snacking!

Yes, that is a chocolate almond cluster, too. #balance

Also, if you can, use fruit and vegetables to replace another carbohydrate choice at sensible moments. Have an apple instead of a piece of toast, or a side salad instead of fries. Snack on baby carrots instead of crackers.

These little choices add up in a positive way, helping to fill you up with fiber, reduce cravings, discourage overeating, improve your digestion, and provide you with solid nutrition that boosts your health while on the road.

Guideline 9: Stay hydrated.

Did you know that, when you get dehydrated, it can often feel like hunger? This is something that I cover in my book, Fit Smart Fast.

The solution is to have a glass of water ever hour or so. You can do this by drinking several glasses of water at each meal, but you can also carry a water bottle with you and drink it 3-4 times in the morning and 3-4 times in the afternoon.

By staying hydrated, you not only help your digestion, but you will also feel less cravings and feel more mentally sharp and energetic!

Guideline 10: Jump right back into normal life upon return.

The end of the trip is crucial. When you get home, do your best to get back into your normal routine as soon as possible.

Start eating your home cooked meals, in the normal portions and at the normal times. Try not to miss more than one day at the gym. Hit the grocery store and re-stock your house with your healthy staples.

Avoid the temptation to let the trip pull the rest of the following week into its gravity well – a 6-day trip is just a 6-day trip. It doesn’t have to have the effect of a 14-day trip, but that’s what often happens when you arrive home tired and thrown off your game.

By using these 10 strategies for healthy travel, you make it more likely that vacations and work trips will be blips on the radar instead of major setbacks. Sure, you may weigh a pound or two more upon your return, but you’ll find that it all comes out in the wash within a week or so. When you ditch the idea of an on/off setting and instead see yourself as able to apply healthy behaviors anytime, anywhere, you have the opportunity to see more consistent results.