Travelling, staying fit & not getting fat

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I love to travel. I love to stay fit. I love to eat but don’t love the idea of getting fat so much.

A lot of people seem to think that travelling the world is bound to be unhealthy and they may as well just accept failure before they even begin. Once you are away from your reduced-fat ‘diet’ foods & without constant access to your plush £100 per month gym, that healthy lifestyle you claim to live becomes a whole lot more difficult.

Add to this the plethora of cheap street food and the widespread use of alcohol as a social lubricant in possibly every hostel known to man, and suddenly the idea of staying healthy in these circumstances to you seems absurd.

But what I have found is, like so many other areas of health & wellbeing; it all comes down to your mind-set. Get your mind-set right, and travelling can actually be one of the most health enhancing experiences on offer.

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In order to get your mind-set right, all you really need to do is believe how easy it can be. If you aren’t convinced yet, I’ve compiled 4 lessons I have learnt to help you have faith that you don’t need to start planning the post-trip diet before you even leave.

  1. Eating healthily abroad is not a slog

I want to let you all into a small secret here. You don’t need to follow a regiment of constantly weighing food, eating only specially prepared pre-packaged meals, drinking special kinds of detox tea or cutting out carbs completely in order to be healthy. All you have to do is nourish your body with real food, and nowhere can this be easier than when you are backpacking.

Fruit & veggies are worldwide staples. Unless you are travelling in Western countries, finding processed and/or fast food is often much more difficult than finding the local stuff, and much more expensive as well. When you can get an avocado from a street stall for less than 10p and are presented with a choice of about 20 fruits to add to your fresh fruit smoothie, greasy Big Macs and melted chocolate bars suddenly don’t seem so appealing.

Don’t get me wrong, you should never deny yourself the occasional treat or the opportunity to try some of the great local delicacies, whether or not they are deemed “healthy”. But what I’ve found from experience is that that is exactly what they do tend to become – occasional treats.

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  1. The world is the best gym out there

When it comes down to exercise – it really is all about making that CHOICE. If you want to exercise, it can be just as easy as when you are at home. All you need to do is make a conscious decision that you will try and exercise when you can, accept that you may need to adapt your exercise routine, commit to it & don’t just give up if you find you are unable to fit it in for a few days.

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My personal preference is to try and incorporate exercise into my daily routine. A trek up a volcano, a snorkelling trip in the ocean or an early morning city exploration run are all examples of how exercise can be used in your travelling experience. However, I get this isn’t always possible everyday – this is where bodyweight exercise are your best friends. Push-ups, squats, lunges & planks are all possible with no equipment whatsoever. Add a set of resistance bands to the mix, and you really have no excuses with a selection of exercises like these shown here to choose from.

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  1. Alcohol is not always your best friend

What I have found is that whilst many backpackers will go without meals costing more than £3 all in the name of maintaining their “budget,” alcohol is a staple that they are not prepared to let go of.

Full moon and jungle parties are always going to lure gap yah boppers in, and who can resist an ice cold beer while swinging in a hammock on a tropical beach? Frankly there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

However, learning that you don’t NEED alcohol to have a good time, to make friends or to get a well-rounded travelling experience, is one of the best things you can do. You do not have to be reliant on alcohol to have a good time; again it is all about mind-set. Developing the ability to make new friends in a hostel without the use of alcohol is a fantastic way to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and increase your self-confidence.

I wouldn’t for one minute suggest you shouldn’t go out and enjoy yourself or have a good night out once in a while, it’s fine. We all do it. I know I did and still do. But is getting so drunk the night before your snorkelling trip that you spend the entire next day being sick into your snorkel really what it’s all about? I’d suggest not.

  1. Variety is one of the healthiest things to incorporate into your routine

Finally, I honestly do believe that being pushed out of your comfort zone and not having the access to all the amenities you may have had before, is mentally one of the most health-enhancing steps you can take.

Don’t get me wrong, it ISN’T always easy. Facing an 8 hour bus journey with the knowledge that there is no possible way to fit in a workout that day, not being able to cook your own meals for weeks on end and a reliance on restaurants with menus that use a 2-word description of their meals is a sure-fire way to give anyone with an interest in fitness and nutrition a panic attack. But is that mind-set really healthy?

The knowledge that a day without a workout won’t kill you, that a jungle hike can do your body just as much good as a spin class & that you won’t turn into Mr Blobby overnight after consuming 3 meals out per day are important life lessons that can allow you to return home without the reliance on certain gym machines or nutritional supplements that you may have believed you couldn’t live a healthy lifestyle without.

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Have faith in your body, eat real food and utilise the surroundings you have been provided with.

Move a little, lose a lot? That would be NEAT

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One of the first books I read on weight loss came from Dr. James Levine. It was entitled “Move a Little, Lose a Lot” and it really spoke to me as at that point I was still one of those people who thought they were “naturally bigger” and to lose weight I had to either start liking food a little bit less and start liking the gym a little bit more, neither of which were realistically going to happen (nowadays I genuinely like the gym…. but that’s a story for a different day.)

If you look about on the internet these days, it is rife with articles telling you all about how cardio doesn’t work. All those gym bunnies on the cross-trainers are apparently just wasting their time and unless you throw up after your workout you might as well not have bothered.

This would only have put me off exercising even more and convinced me that weight-loss was NEVER going to happen because funnily enough, throwing up after a workout didn’t really appeal to me.

I am not a personal trainer; I have no formal or nutrition qualification. But I can tell you that these articles are not applicable to the majority of the population: the 25% of adults in the UK that are now classified as obese, those who can’t afford a gym membership and thus struggle to do any form of formal exercise.

Can anyone else see that telling a person who has never stepped foot on a treadmill and quite frankly cannot imagine anything more horrific that the only effective way for them to lose weight is to get on and run hell-for-leather at 15mph is probably not the smartest approach to take?

Care must be taken that we do not lose sight of the common sense approach to weight loss: this can be thought of as the NEAT approach.

NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesisencapsulates all your physical activity throughout the day, except for whatever is included in your formal workout. Think of all the casual walking, stair climbing, shopping, gardening, housework, general standing, walking up and down and menial things you may even do subconsciously like talking (great news for me!), fidgeting and chewing – NEAT includes all of these.

The potential dangers of High Intensity Interval Training

HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is all the rage at the moment – and I think it is a fantastic form of building endurance, strength, agility and general fitness. But there’s a common misconception among a lot of personal trainers and “fitness enthusiasts” that if the exercise you’re performing isn’t high in intensity, then it’s worthless for fat loss. However, exercise intensity can affect NEAT for days after a workout is over, and not just in the positive “metabolism rising” way you’ve probably read about online.

Think of this example: you’re a busy person & haven’t been exercising much at all lately.  You’ve heard all about these high intensity classes and decide that this is it for you. You MUST get fit and this seems to take up the least possible time. So, you pull yourself out of bed on your day off for a 7am class. By the end, you are covered in sweat and barely able to crawl out of the gym, but you feel GREAT. Then you get home, have a shower and suddenly you don’t feel so great. In fact you crash and after a nap you spend the rest of the day with a marathon session of Netflix. The next day, the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) sets in and then you physically CAN’T move around much, even if you wanted to. But hey, high-intensity classes are the way forward and it didn’t matter that you lay like a beached whale for days afterwards because your metabolism was on fire regardless – right?!

If this is you, please use your common sense. You may need to reconsider the trade-off between being able to perform this workout and the loss of general physical activity (and enjoyment of your day!) that will result. It is all about BALANCE.

Unless you are a well-oiled athlete, too much high intensity work can easily zap all of your energy, resulting in a lower level of NEAT.

Personally, I believe I am living proof that low moderate intensity exercise (e.g. 60 minutes of treadmill walking) WORKS as long as this does not negatively affect your activity outside the gym or cause you to go home and munch the entire cupboard. It is not true that only high intensity training is worthwhile. I lost 4 stone through low intensity exercise – even going as far as doing little things like marching on the spot on the wii-fit while watching the X-Factor on a Saturday night (OK it wasn’t cool….but was spending your Saturday evening watching the X-Factor ever cool?) It may not get the weight-loss job done as quickly or effectively, but it still does get it done. Anything is better than sitting all day long.

What NEAT doesn’t do: the skinny-fat paradox

However, there is a reason why recent research has moved away from this approach. This NEAT altering concept works best for overweight and obese individuals. To understand a bit better, let’s break it down.

In terms of weight-loss, there is a lot of conflicting research out there about the best way to lose weight. However, all of this research does (to some extent) agree with the fact to lose weight, you need to burn more calories (calories out) than you take in through food. They also agree that you have 3 ways to adjust this balance:

  1. Dieting: eat a bit less, or eat the same amount but eat less calorie dense foods
  2. Exercise: this includes any form of exercise, it could be weight training, or high/low intensity cardio based training. All of these burn calories, although they do it in different ways. But like I said, they all do it.
  3. A combination of the above

However, when it comes to body composition, dieting alone is the worst way to lose weight, shortly followed by the NEAT approach described above, or a combination of the two. This is because without any form of resistance training, you will lose a lot of muscle and can very easily become a “skinny-fat” person who may fit into that size 8 dress doesn’t look so great underneath and more importantly doesn’t FEEL so great due to missing out on certain nutrients the body may require through calorie restriction and muscle waste.

If you want to avoid this so-called skinny fat syndrome then you need to consider weight training and fuelling this with nutritious food as priorities in your routine, and THEN adjust the amount of cardio activity accordingly.

What to take from this article

In conclusion, I believe whether you incorporate this approach or not depends very much on where you are on your fitness journey and your own personal goals.

For those just starting out and wanting to lose body fat, altering your level of NEAT through simply moving more is (in my opinion) a much more achievable and less painful form of losing weight than calorie restriction.

However, for those who are not overweight and with more training specific goals – the research points towards an approach more focused on resistance and higher intensity forms of training.

Keeping a high level of NEAT allows us all to eat a little more – and personally I think that a few brisk country walks with my dog a week relieves stress AND allows me to enjoy a slice of Banoffee Pie from the Ramore (anyone in NI MUST try this) every so often – win win situation!

References

  1. Nonexercise activity thermogenesis–liberating the life-force.  Levine JA.  J Intern Med. 2007 Sep;262(3):273-87
  2. Role of non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) in obesity.  Kotz, CM and Levine, JA.   Minn. Med. 2005 Sep; 88(9):54-7.
  3. Nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): environment and biology. Levine, JA. American Journal of Physiology. 2004 May;Vol. 286 no. 5

For anyone interested in learning more about this – the book I have included a link to at the top of the page really speaks volume. Furthermore, Tom Venuto writes a fantastic blog which speaks a lot of sense when it comes to general fitness and well-being. It includes this article containing some more tips for easy ways to increase your NEAT level.