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Working Out on the Road

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Scott exercising at Puthuvype Beach in Kerala, India

Once I sort through the zillions of pictures we took, expect a post on the very cute yellow-eyed penguins we saw a couple of days ago.  Meanwhile, for the first time, Scott is making a guest appearance on the blog!  He’s going to talk about something I’m way too lazy about: exercise.

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Unless you’re Nina or one of her biological relatives, you might have to work at staying in shape. I know I need to eat roughly the same calories I expend or, well, I’ll expand. Balancing this equation during a period of extended travel has the potential to be extra difficult.

Eating out is rarely healthy in the U.S., but there are even fewer low-calorie or diet options elsewhere. You also want to try a wide assortment of foods when traveling somewhere new—it’s a way of experiencing the culture and allowing yourself to make snooty comparisons to Americanized ethnic food later—which means eating a greater quantity than usual.

When it comes to exercise, that membership to your local gym doesn’t help anymore, and your luggage won’t fit any of the equipment you might have found there. Even suitable paths or sidewalks for running might be hard to find in many cities.

That’s the challenge. Here’s how I’ve been solving it (or not) so far …

We did a lot of hiking in September and October (first at Western U.S. national parks, then in Nepal), so I started out in good shape. Hiking can be strenuous exercise–depending on your pace / incline / packweight—but it also has the added bonus of cutting your food intake. There are no takeout options on the trail (Annapurna Circuit actually did have restaurants every few hours, but they mostly served the same dish and lost their appeal), and there’s the helpful disincentive of carrying on your back whatever you plan to eat. It may be hard to gain muscle while hiking, but dropping weight is pretty easy.

What followed were three weeks of wonderful but unhealthy Indian food and two months of holiday treats, home cooking, and Little Caesars. Then I gorged on baguettes, Nutella crepes, cheese, and wine in Paris, and resumed eating unlimited thalis in India (free refills on 3-5 curries plus rice). I kept going on the long urban walks that I love, sometimes while Nina slept in and sometimes while she begrudgingly trailed behind, but they were mere pocketknives in a caloric gunfight.

Enter a timely gift from Jeff, a good friend and former workout partner at our grad school gym. He’d spent twenty weeks on a new exercise program with tremendous results (he can now do one-armed pushups with either arm!) and was kind enough to buy me a travel-friendly Kindle copy of the book that got him started. It’s called You Are Your Own Gym. This is probably the first product plug on this blog, but if you’re interested, here are links to the Kindle (You Are Your Own Gym: The Bible of Bodyweight Exercises
) and paperback (You Are Your Own Gym: The Bible of Bodyweight Exercises
) versions. These are Amazon affiliate links, so we’ll get 40-60 cents per book bought, with proceeds going toward the Buying Jeff Something Fund).

The philosophy behind this program, authored by a Special Ops Physical Training Specialist named Mark Lauren, has two core attributes I value a lot: it’s natural and minimal. You use only the force of your own bodyweight and sturdy objects all around you—floors, doors, tables, etc. (sometimes he even mentions throwing a few large rocks in a backpack). With countless variations of movements you might recognize from the military (pushups), yoga (downward-facing dog), or Jack LaLanne (sorry, too young to know specifics), the program promises to build muscles that will burn more calories, and as long as you do the workouts intensely, it will only take 20-30 minutes, 4-5 times a week.

I’ve worked out at gyms for the last fifteen years and watched TV commercials pitching exercise contraptions for the last 32 years, so the idea that I can get just as good of a workout using solely my own bodyweight feels empowering. I’m only a couple of weeks into the regimen, and while it may be too early to notice fat loss, I am getting a little stronger. Best of all, I find myself wanting to do the exercises at unscheduled times, when often the only thing stopping me is embarrassment (more on that later).

For obvious reasons, this workout program fits a travelling lifestyle well. It’s not perfect for budget guest houses in the developing world because floors can be dirty and doors / railings flimsy, but I’m still finding ways to do two-thirds of the exercises outlined (erring on the conservative side when it comes to damaging other people’s furniture). I sometimes do the floor exercises on the bed, which can be good (because the mattress adds instability, making the exercises more challenging) or bad (in warm climates, I have a very sweaty sheet to sleep on).

Outside, this program encourages a weightlifting version of Parkour. You can perform these exercises with the assistance of park benches, stop signs, fences—you name it—but there’s a key difference: Parkour looks cool (remember the opening scene to Casino Royale?). Straddling a lamp post, leaning back, and then pulling yourself back up? That just looks like you’re humping a lamp post.

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I’ve done only a couple of this program’s exercises in public—just stuff that could pass for yoga or calisthenics and only in parks or at beaches, where that kind of thing happens from time to time. But beware the next time you see someone thrusting against a No Parking sign or railing a railing—if it’s the middle of the day and they’re in good shape, they might just be following You are Your Own Gym.

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