How to stay active and in shape while roadtripping

Yes, it's possible to maintain a fitness routine even if you live in a van

By Brent Rose

Roadtripping is a chance to see the country and eat plenty of distinctive food. If you’re not careful, though, those meals on the road can add up. And before you know it, your belly has grown to the point where it can hold the steering wheel for you.

With all the miles you put under your wheels on a road trip, it’s easy to forget that our bodies are sedentary most of the day, slowly embedding themselves into the car seats. It’s tough to stick with regular fitness routines. Plus, on the road, you will be surrounded by deep-fried temptations at every turn. In short, it isn’t easy to stay in shape on the road.

Friends, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Who am I to tell you? I’m a writer (formerly of Gizmodo’s weekly health and fitness science column, Fitmodo) who has lived in a van for more than three years now. Over the last three years, I’ve somehow managed to not completely transform into a sack of tapioca. But it wasn’t always easy, especially at the beginning.

My physical fitness took a big hit when I moved to #vanlife. Mistakes were made. But, luckily, I learned from them and came up with some extremely simple strategies to counteract long days in the driver’s seat. And guess what? They work even when you’re not roadtripping.

The five-minute rest-stop workout

It’s easy to decide that you “don’t have time” to work out if you think it’s going to require an hour-long run or a trip to the gym. That excuse falls apart when your workouts only take about five minutes. Most people can conjure five free minutes at some point in their day. Not only that, you can get a good workout in during that time. The key is increasing difficulty instead of adding reps.

This concept was seeded in my brain from the only time I ever worked with a trainer (it came free with a gym membership when I was a wee lad of 20). We were talking about abs. I thought it would be cool to be able to do 100 crunches.

He said, “If you were working your arms, you wouldn’t do 100 curls with a two-pound dumbbell, would you? No, you’d add more weight. Why do people approach abs differently?” Sage advice, and it applies to other exercises, too.

Most people can find five free minutes for exercise during the day. | Photo: Shutterstock

Once I finally realized that I needed to add some regular strength-training to my life, I started using it as a way to break up long drives. Generally, that means rest stops. However, if you’re in a town, look for a public park. Find a grassy spot (pro-tip: avoid the designated “pet areas”) and make believe you don’t care if people see you exercise in the middle of a park for a few minutes. It’s kind of awkward at first, but you’ll get over it in time.

When I first started doing this, I would do one set of as many push-ups as I could do, one set of as many modified crunches I could do, and one set of mobility squats. And that was it. If I ever got to the point where I could do twenty of the crunches, then I modified them again to make them a little harder (add a little weight, add a twist, add a pause, extend your legs further, etc). I found that kept me challenging myself and building muscle without adding much time to the workout. For push-ups, when I was finally able to do a set of fifty, I modified them to make them harder. You get the idea. This is a workout I can even do on the floor of my van, if the weather is bad.

if you’re struggling to get into or maintain an exercise routine, just do a short, intense workout and get back on the road.

I generally try to do this routine every other day (though you can do every third day to start). And, yes, you should try to work some cardio into your week when time and location permits. If you want a little more variety or structure, I recommend you follow the 7-minute workout published by the New York Times a few years ago. It’s a workout you can do essentially anywhere.

If you want a more complete workout but you are short on space, look into getting some rubber resistance bands (TheraBand is the biggest name in this category). These bands are available in different levels of resistance, they’ll fit in your glove compartment, and there’s virtually no limit to the types of exercises you can do with them. They’re cheap, too.

The concept behind these short workouts is known as the 80/20 principle. It’s something that self-help guru Tim Ferriss talk about a lot. While I’m not a devotee of his, this has worked well for me. The concept is basically that you get 80 percent of the results you want with the first 20 percent of the work (assuming you’re working effectively). That last 20 percent? It’d take about five times the amount of work you put in to get that first 80 percent.

I’m not saying it isn’t worthwhile, but if you’re struggling to get into or maintain an exercise routine, just do a short, intense workout and get back on the road.

The absolute best way to find time for fitness is to do something you love. | Photo: Shutterstock

Battle gluttony with laziness

On a long drive, we frequently wait until we’re really hungry before we seek out sustenance. Then, in a fit of desperation, we impulsively grab the first thing that’s convenient. If you’re driving through the States, the most convenient thing will usually be fast food or snacks from a gas station. Those take a toll on the waistline. The trick is to set yourself up so that the quickest, easiest thing to grab is something healthy. Let your road-weary brain take the path of least resistance to food that’s actually good for you.

For me, this means I only buy healthy food for my van, making the most convenient option the healthiest. I try to have fresh produce and ready-to-eat lean proteins with me at all times. I already covered ways to eat cheap on the road, and I included a whole section on finding and storing fresh food. Read it.

If you want to make it even more convenient for yourself to do the right thing, then wash your produce as soon as you buy it. That way, it’s just sitting there in your fridge or cooler, ready to be eaten. If you can make it more convenient to snack on healthy food instead of pulling off the road to find some junk food, you’ll be doing your body a huge favor. Plus, you’ll probably save some money, too.

Don’t be draconian about this, though. Part of the reason we road trip is to experience local cultures. And eating the local grub is one of the best ways to do that. If I’m in Nashville, am I going to eat the famous hot chicken? Will I have the bananas foster bread pudding in New Orleans? The cheesy enchiladas in Santa Fe? You’d better believe it. However, I don’t do that for every meal. Generally, I try to cook at least two out of three meals a day in my van, where healthy food is the only option. That way, if I want to try the local greaseball burger at night, it’s not such a big deal.

Apps (applications, not appetizers)

Apps are great not just for distracting you at the DMV. They’re great for exercising, too.

“On the road, I’ve used the DownDog app to take a yoga class of any length, style, and skill level. Any time. Anywhere,” Laura Hughes, writer and full-time traveler told me. “You can also download HIIT (high-intensity interval training) training apps for some solid cardio.”

Apps are great for exercising. | Photo: Shutterstock

Laura and I are both huge fans of the AllTrails app. It’s indispensable for finding hiking, walking, and biking trails near you, complete with user ratings, directions to trailheads, and downloadable, offline, GPS-enabled maps. That is, if you subscribe, which is well worth it. Apps like Runtastic, Runkeeper, Strava, and Endomondo are excellent for helping you track your runs and rides, too.

Blend it

Want to take healthy eating to the next level?

“Blenders are great for smoothies, but also for making your own sauces. That way, you control what ingredients you dip your chips in,” Hughes said. “You can also sneak more vegetables into anything if it’s blended. If you have enough solar power to use a standard blender, NutriBullet blenders are great for saving space. Otherwise, you can opt for an immersion blender or something more manual, which results in an added workout, so, bonus.”

My go-to healthy cooking gadget is even simpler: A steamer. I’m talking about those cheap ($5-ish) inserts that you drop into the bottom of virtually any pot. It’s an extremely efficient way to cook your veggies, regardless of whether you’re cooking over a backpacking stove or a full-sized range in your RV. I’m constantly using mine for artichokes, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, asparagus, broccoli, and even the occasional dumpling, summer roll, or tamale.

One more food tip: Sometimes, on a long drive, I find myself wanting to snack incessantly—even if I’ve just had a full meal. Generally, this isn’t because I’m hungry, but because I’m bored or anxious. While I’m a big proponent of eating (and/or snacking) when you’re actually hungry, I try to keep a pack of sugar-free gum within arm’s reach when I’m driving. If I’m not truly hungry, that will usually be enough to scratch the itch.

Don't let soreness from driving stop you from working out. | Photo: Shutterstock

Stay limber

“Soreness from driving and living in a small space can stop you from working out, so make sure to pack massage balls,” Hughes advises. “You can also have a lacrosse or tennis ball on hand, which seem to work just as well. Nobody likes to go running with a kink in their neck.”

Even taking a few minutes to really stretch can do wonders for your body. That’s one of the reasons I recommend keeping a yoga mat with you—and I’m not a yogi. I use the mat for my aforementioned five-minute rest-stop workout, because it’s more comfortable and it keeps my clothes cleaner than working out on grass. It’s also a great platform for a little light stretching, which can help stave off nerve damage from too much sitting.

Do what you love

“Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

This unattributable quote applies to exercise as well as day jobs. Surfing is just about my favorite thing to do in the world, despite being pretty mediocre at it. I love surfing so much that I will push myself way harder while riding the waves than I do with any other activity—and find myself smiling the whole time.

This same “push yourself because you love it” concept applies to any physical activity. The absolute best way to exercise is to engage in the sports you most enjoy. Try new things and cultivate new hobbies. Obviously, I can’t surf in the mountains, so I find other activities. The point is that your grin will motivate you far more than fantasies of what you might look like in a bathing suit after 1,000 situps.

Besides, wasn’t having a good time kind of the whole point of your road trip? Get out there and enjoy it.

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