I’ve never been skinny by any definition. I’ve always had curves. I love outdoor activities and adventure sports and am reasonably fit, but I’m a shorty and sometimes stray over the line into the “obese” category on those BMI (Body Mass Index) charts.
At some point I must have been less than a size 12, but not since I started paying attention to what my size is. Like a lot of women, I fluctuate quite a bit. I’ve been everything from a size 12 to an 18, and tend to level out around a 14. But when I travel, I always lose weight.
This might seem like the opposite of most people’s experiences. Several surveys I’ve seen have concluded the average person gains between six and nine pounds during a two-week vacation. Granted, I usually travel at least a month at a time, and sometimes up to six, but I tend to lose ten or more pounds in that time. Travel is the most consistent, successful, and, frankly, enjoyable “diet” I’ve ever tried! So how do I do it? Why do I lose weight when so many travelers tend to gain it? It has a lot to do with my style of travel. I’ve narrowed it down to three main reasons:
Walking is one of my preferred forms of exercise, when at home and when traveling. When I’m at home, or in one place for a while, I try to walk at least 30 minutes, and usually more like 45 to an hour at least six days a week. That’s somewhere between 1.5 and 3 miles a day. When I travel, I walk almost everywhere. If where I want to go is less than three miles away, chances are I will try to walk there rather than take a bus, taxi, or Uber.
Check out my favorite shoes for walking – Keen sport sandals. I live in these things!
That distance is what I’m used to at home, but I don’t do it just once a day. I’ll walk two miles from my Airbnb room to a museum, then walk all around the museum, then walk over to the park or shopping street, wander around there, then walk back to my accommodation. I average between 6 and 10 miles of walking every day when I’m traveling.
How many calories you burn from walking differs based on your weight and speed, but on average, you burn about 100 calories per mile. That means at home I burn approximately 150 to 300 calories a day walking. When I travel, I burn more like 600 to 1000 calories per day! That adds up quickly. Of course, just like at home, I don’t walk that far every day. I have travel days when I’m just sitting on a plane, bus, or train. All. Day. Long. Or I have light days when I don’t go anywhere, or I don’t walk much. But it still averages out to about three times the exercise I get at home.
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And it doesn’t feel like exercise. I’m walking down unfamiliar streets in foreign lands. I’m soaking in the sights, the atmosphere around me, trying to navigate a new place and culture. It’s new and exciting, not repetitive, and never feels like work, as exercising sometimes can when you go to a gym or walk the same route every day. Often I hardly notice how much I’ve walked. I’ll get back to my hostel at the end of the day, sit down, and it will hit me, “Man, I’m tired! I wonder how much I’ve walked today?” And I check out my fitness watch or google map the route I took that day and I’ll surprise myself with how far I actually walked. “That was 9 miles?!”
Besides walking farther and more often when I travel, a lot of the time I’m also hauling a bag or two with me. I always pack in a carry-on suitcase (check out my post on Packing for 6 Months in a Carry-On Suitcase for more info on how I do that or sign up for my newsletter in the sidebar and get a free, email-exclusive printable packing list), but I do tend to max out the weight limit airlines allow for said carry-on (learn how I manipulate that limit with my post on 5 Ways to Avoid Paying Baggage Fees).
This means between my rolling carry-on suitcase and a small shoulder bag or backpack, I’m often lugging around well over 50 pounds of clothes and gear! This added weight adds to the workout I get from walking. Not only am I walking around carrying my own weight, but half the time I add the weight of an elementary school student to my load, making the workout that much more effective. You don’t burn twice as many calories or anything, but an extra ten or twenty calories per mile can add up over a ten-mile day.
The second reason I always lose weight when I travel is that I am a budget traveler. This ties directly back into my first reason. I don’t walk everywhere when I travel exclusively for exercise. It’s also a huge money saver. I’ll often book accommodation slightly outside the ideal area everyone wants to stay in because I can get a much better price for those few extra miles, and I’m not afraid to walk them.
If I can walk instead of taking a taxi, Uber, or even the bus or tram, it saves me quite a bit of money over the course of my trip. Even if a three-mile city bus or subway ride, for example, would cost me $2. If I take that two or three times a day, that’s $4-6. Let’s average out $5 a day. Walking saves me $35 a week, at least! That may not sound like that much, but for a month-long trip, say, that’s $140. I could sleep in a hostel bed for a week on that. That’s half a plane ticket from the US to Europe – or 4 or 5 plane tickets within Europe! I can get a lot more traveling out of my budget by saving those few dollars walking. And it helps save my waistline as well.
Another way my frugal nature helps me lose weight on trips is that I am much more conscious of what I am spending money on. I see prices everywhere. I would rather spend my few dollars to see that costly but oh-so-cool attraction, or take a ferry out to that beautiful island, rather than eat at that expensive restaurant. Sure, eating the local food is part of experiencing the culture of your travel destination, but you don’t have to spend a bundle to do it. Check out the food section of my post How I Travel Cheaper Than You Live for more on that. I’ll eat a $3 lunch at a street stand or convenience store rather than a $30 lunch at a restaurant.
The awareness of how much I’m spending on food brings with it an awareness of how much food I am eating. At home, when I shop for a week or two at the grocery store, I might cook a big meal and overeat or pull out snack foods in between meals just because they are there. When I travel, I can’t store or carry that much food with me, so I don’t snack as much or cook big, elaborate meals.
I also have a more tangible comparison between spending more to eat out or snack a lot and spending that money on a train ticket or entrance fee. When I weigh it directly against something exciting, entertaining, or educational that I am really interested in doing, I am much more likely to spend less by eating less. Of course, I certainly treat myself from time to time. I do eat out a few times along my travels or buy that scrumptious-looking 1000 calorie local pastry in the bakery I just walked by. But these indulgences and the quantities I eat are less when I travel because of what this savings allows me to do instead.
I’m calling the third of the major reasons I lose weight when I travel “engagement”. No, not the kind with a diamond ring and wedding bells. I’m talking about being engaged with where I am and what I am doing. I’m not only a stress eater, but I am a boredom eater. If I’m sitting around at home with not much to do, or I’ve fallen into a routine that feels the same day after day, I tend to eat even when I’m not hungry simply out of boredom. “Ugh, this is so monotonous, I’m going to break it up by getting up and having a snack.”
When I travel, I am hardly ever bored. There are so many new, unusual, different things to draw and keep my attention. I have to focus more on the unfamiliar, figuring out where I want to go and what I want to see in a day, not to mention how to get there, that I never feel that urge to get something to eat just to have something to do.
In fact, I’m sometimes so engaged and entertained that I forget to eat. I’ll be out walking around a new place all day and it’s only when start to feel tired at 3 pm that I realize I’ve only eaten a protein bar breakfast that day, and that was seven hours ago! Cutting out those boredom meals really cuts back on the amount of food I consume and certainly contributes to my travel weight loss.
So, as you can see, my proclivity for traveling on the cheap contributes most to why I lose weight when I travel. From saving money by staying outside the city center and walking in each day to pinching those pennies walking instead of taking public transport for shorter distances, being frugal helps increase the amount I walk threefold. This is further compounded by the weight I’m often carrying while walking. My level of engagement helps keeps my mind stimulated so I don’t overeat, eat out of boredom, or become bored with walking. Altogether, these three things add up to the magic formula for weight loss: eating less and exercising more. It’s easy to see why travel is my ultimate diet that really works!
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