Becoming a Fit
Going on vacation doesn’t have to mean taking a
holiday from wellness.
By Linda Melone
Summer brings lazy days on the beach, trips to favorite recreation spots and general rest and relaxation. But if you work hard to maintain your fitness throughout the year, taking it too easy can reverse those hard-earned results and make it tough to get back in a routine once you return home. Keeping fit while you travel is easy if you know a few tricks.
Taking a few extra days off won’t make a huge difference in your fitness level, although the length of your vacation stay determines the amount of fitness decline, says Andrew Wolf, exercise physiologist at Miravel Resort & Spa in Tucson, Arizona. The key concept to understand is that mitochondria, the “powerhouse” of your body’s cells, have a three-week half life, so in essence they’re replaced by a new fleet after three weeks, Wolf says. Although fitness takes a nosedive at this three-week point, you’ll likely notice a difference well before then.
Cardiovascular conditioning diminishes much faster than muscular strength. Sometimes referred to as the “decay curve,” the decline in cardiovascular fitness can be noticeable in only two weeks. One classic study (Circulation 1968) showed a 25% to 30% drop in fitness after three weeks of bed rest. It took up to 40 days of physical activity for formerly fit people to restore their cardiovascular fitness values to pre-rest levels.
To help prevent some of this loss, plan on increasing your training sessions before you go away, says Andrew Wall, exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “If you usually work out three times a week bump it up to five times a week, maybe adding Saturday and Sunday and push it out,” Wall advises. This sets you up to be slightly “over trained” and in need of extra rest by the time your vacation rolls around.
Gains and Losses
Compared to cardiovascular fitness, it takes considerably longer before you’ll notice a decline in strength gains. Some research shows that four to eight weeks after stopping workouts and reducing resistance training you can expect to lose about 10% of your strength. Other studies of trained athletes show that lifting only every 10 to 14 days seems enough to maintain a certain level of strength.
Given that it takes longer to lose resistance training benefits, it’s not surprising that strength can be quickly regained once you return from your trip, notes Wolf. “After a week of not working out it takes only a couple of days of exercise to get you back where you were,” he says.
In addition to the days or weeks spent away from exercise, your starting fitness level and the length of time you’ve been working out determines how quickly you lose benefits. If you’ve only recently started exercising, say, for less than six months, your fitness level will dwindle faster than someone who’s been working out for longer. “Although you may not notice a huge difference visually (such as muscle tone), changes occur at the cellular level,” says Wolf.
You can keep both cardiovascular and strength losses while traveling to a minimum by exercising at least every third day. You should also maintain at least two-thirds of your normal aerobic exercise time while keeping the same intensity; for example, if you normally jog for 45 minutes, you can cut back to 15 minutes without slacking off on the effort you expend. Finally, do your strength-training program at least once a week, using your usual resistance levels.
Cardio on the Go
Keeping a level of cardiovascular fitness requires only a pair of walking or running shoes. “The good news is you can walk or run nearly anywhere,” says Gregory Cloutier, MPH, exercise physiologist with the Human Performance Science Lab at Northeastern University in Boston. “Or if you’re lucky the hotel will have a gym.” Call in advance or look online to seek out nearby health clubs and ask about their guest policy. Most gyms charge from $10 to $25 for a day pass.
In addition, hotel stairwells present a good cardio option (try this first thing in the morning when there’s less stairwell foot traffic). Use caution if you’re not accustomed to this type of workout, as stair running can be intense. A 150-pound woman can burn more than 500 calories in 30 minutes of stair running, according to the American College of Sports Medicine; even walking up stairs for a half hour burns 286 calories, equivalent to walking at 3.5 mph for two hours.
Try this simple stair workout: Warm up by walking up and down for three to four minutes. Then try sprinting (or fast walking, depending on your fitness level) up a flight, and then walking down. For a greater challenge run up two flights and walk down. For variety try walking up two steps at a time and then walking down.
No stairwell? Pack a jump rope, which weighs only ounces and takes up little space in a suitcase. “Or you could even just pretend to jump rope by jumping in place,” says Cloutier. Make sure you’re on the first floor or take your jump rope outside to avoid disturbing other guests.
If you enjoy running or walking outdoors, ask the hotel concierge about safe paths you can take. And always let someone know where you’ll be and what time you expect to return, says Wall. “This is especially important if you’re in a foreign country,” he says. “Someone should know if you’re overdue to return.”
The most enjoyable cardio workout? “Walking tours,” says Wolf. Do an internet search or ask the concierge for recommendations.
While you lose strength much slower than aerobic fitness, keeping up with a low level or modified workout makes it easier to get back to your regular routine once you return. The easiest plan: bring your fitness wear and plan on doing bodyweight exercises in your hotel room, says Wall. “Look up bodyweight exercises such as those you can find in the ACE fitness library.” The site is acefitness.org.
Here’s an example of a bodyweight workout you can do anywhere.
Squats (legs and glutes), 20 reps: Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, hands behind your head with elbows out to each side Keep your head up, abs tight and back straight as you bend at the knees and hips and lower into a squat, making sure your knees line up with your toes as you descend; lower as far as you can while maintaining your balance and slowly rise back up to starting position.
Push-ups (chest and arms), 10 to 15 reps: Keep your hands shoulder-width apart as you lower yourself, making sure to keep your back straight (avoid raising your hips or allowing them to sag), before pushing back up to starting position. These may be done on the floor with straight legs or on your knees, or up against a sturdy countertop.
Alternating lunges (legs and glutes), 10 to 15 reps: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, head up, hands on hips. Step forward with one foot into a lunge position and lower yourself to the floor until both legs are at a 90° angle. Push back with your forward leg and step forward with the opposite leg; continue alternating.
Plank (core, abs and back), hold for 20 to 30 seconds: Lie facedown on the floor and hike yourself up on to your forearms and toes, keeping your body in a straight line by contracting your abdominals (remember to breathe!) and hold. Avoid raising your hips or allowing them to sag. Hold for as long as you can before losing form.
Reverse crunches (abs/lower abs), 10 to 15 reps: Lie on the floor with your head in front of a sturdy chair; reach overhead and grasp a chair leg. Then bend your knees and bring them up towards your chest, focusing on squeezing your lower abs; slowly lower and repeat.
Finish the program with a set of 25 jumping jacks or go for a walk or run.
As for burning off all that rich restaurant food, “just enjoy yourself,” says Cloutier. “Give yourself a break. Expect a calorie overflow and just plan to make up for it when you get back. And don’t forget to have fun.” Sticking with a fitness plan while you’re away will help make that task easier.