Everyone loses weight when they travel, apparently.
All that walking around new cities, hiking in the mountains, swimming in warm oceans. None of the terrible Western diet, or sitting in a cubicle for 50 hours a week. So much spare time for exercise and looking after yourself. I mean, basically it’s impossible not to drop a few pounds, right?
So why, after four and half years on the road, was I fifteen pounds heavier than when I started? Why was I still getting acne despite barely remembering being a teenager, and having chronic digestive problems? Why was I tired all the time, sluggish, bloated, and feeling every one of my forty years on the planet?
The answer, like it usually is with these things, was simple when you break it down. Diet and exercise.
Before I started travelling, I had a reasonable routine going. I walked to work each day, and ran 10-15km a few times a week. I cooked most of my meals at home, mainly because eating out in Melbourne was too damn expensive to do anything else. I had a bit more flab on my upper body than I might have liked, but generally, I was doing ok.
Life on the road, though, was different. While “normal” travellers might spend all day walking around exploring, I was trying to build a business that made enough money to keep me afloat. That meant more hours in front of a laptop than when I had a corporate job, and the walk to work was measured in inches, not miles. The view from my office changed regularly. The level of activity didn’t.
Even when I did drag myself outside, the climate, air and pavement quality of the South East Asian cities where I spent much of my time wasn’t good for exercise. Some people might be able to run when it’s 30+ degrees C, 95% humidity and they can barely see the potholes through the smog, but I’m not one of them. I picked hotels and apartments that had gyms when I could, and tried to find external ones that offered monthly membership, but occasional spurts of exercise aren’t the same thing as a consistent routine… and I’d always hated the gym anyway.
My diet suffered too. One of the great things about travel is getting to experience all the new foods. One of the bad things about travelling long-term is experiencing them for three meals a day, seven days a week, for years on end. Most of the places I stayed didn’t have kitchens, so I’d eat out for every meal. Delicious? Absolutely. Healthy? Often, not so much. I’d rarely have much of an idea about exactly what was in my food, or whether it was any good for me.
Sometimes the stars would align. I’d be in a temperate city where I could exercise, have a fully-stocked kitchen for a few weeks, and be able to find a nearby market to buy healthier options. That was great, while it lasted… but it never lasted long. Soon enough, I’d be back on a plane or bus, heading somewhere else, to start the guesswork over again.
Some people can stay fit and healthy on the road, but not me. Maybe I didn’t know how to do it without my previous routine. Maybe it was a lack of motivation. There’s one thing I definitely didn’t lack, however. Extra inches on my waistline. I had plenty of those.
So, skip forward 4+ years, and it’s no surprise that I’d turned into a chubby, spotty, unhappy version of myself, dragging my backpack around the world and desperately wanting to stop. If I couldn’t manage to stay healthy without having a home, then a home I would have to have.
Fortunately by this stage, Lauren felt the same way. We turned up in Lisbon in April, decided we loved it within three days, signed a lease a few weeks later, and that was that. We had a place to call our own, at least for a year.
And that’s when the work started.
It didn’t take long to figure out that running in Lisbon would be a challenge. It’s one of the hilliest cities I’ve ever been to. Pretty much the only long, flat route anywhere near where I live is along the river, and even that’s 15-20 minutes away. The cobblestones are a bitch, too, slippery, uneven and often broken. The combination gave me patellar tendonitis (knee inflammation) within a week of starting running again. Great.
Despite my lifelong apathy towards gyms, then, I decided to join one. We looked at a couple that were nearby, and opted for the fancier one, because apparently that’s what we do. Still, it’s nice to rarely have to wait to use any of the machines, or to be able to soak in a hot tub at the end of the week.
Joining, though, didn’t mean much. For starters, I didn’t really know how to use most of the equipment. I’d been shown how some of it worked long ago, but had forgotten the little I’d learned. With a knee that stopped functioning after a few miles, classes held entirely in Portuguese, and no idea what to do with all those intimidating-looking machines, a membership alone wasn’t going to get me far.
Then, I got lucky. The gym has a bunch of personal trainers available, and as far as I can gather, they’ve got different specialties. When I mentioned my knee problems, I got assigned to Duarte, a trainer who specialises in injury rehabilitation… and he’s seriously great. Targeted exercises and posture realignment sorted that tendonitis out within a few weeks, but that was just the start.
I now see him twice a week, and train alone three other days, and he’s developed a strength-based routine that leaves me just the right amount of broken every. single. time. I’ve never exercised so hard, or been this committed to it. He’s figured out that gentle persuasion is more effective on me than the alpha-male shouting beloved by other trainers I’ve had. Apparently it works. Other than while travelling, I haven’t missed a workout in months.
My cardio has dropped back to a few minutes a day, basically just as a warm-up. From someone who would only ever run, now I barely do it at all. It seems I’m a gym bunny these days. WTF.
So that dealt with the exercise side of things. As nutritionists love to tell you, though, exercise is just 20% of weight loss. Diet is the other 80%… and mine needed a lot of work. While I haven’t been a McDonalds and pizza kind of guy in decades, my food choices still kinda sucked.
Bread was a big part of most meals. I’d devour a block of cheese in a few days. I treated vegetables like a garnish, thought Coke Zero was the healthy option, and undoubtedly drank more wine than I should have.
When Lauren first decided she wanted to try the Whole30, a strict 30-day elimination diet that might help with her anxiety, I wasn’t very interested. Giving up dairy, gluten, sugar, alcohol, grains and many other things for a month? Probably having to eat at home the entire time? It sounded like a recipe for misery and no social life, rather than anything I’d willingly choose to do.
Also, I was generally a massive sceptic about any kind of fad diet, and that’s exactly what this sounded like. It seemed like a more extreme version of the paleo diet, and as far as I knew, that was something done predominantly by douchebags. Thanks, but no.
As the start date approached, though, I changed my mind. It was going to be hard enough for Lauren to stick to the regime as it was, without me knocking back cocktails and filling the house with things she couldn’t eat, and I really wanted her to succeed. So, I agreed to join her in the madness. On the night of June 30, we threw out all the food in the house that wasn’t Whole30-compliant, filled supermarket bags with fresh meat, fruit and vegetables, and wondered what the hell we’d got ourselves into.
The first several days sucked. A lot. Detoxing from sugar was hard. I had splitting headaches, no energy, slept most of each day and felt like I had the flu for a week. Going out with friends required eating at home beforehand, then glumly drinking sparkling water while they ordered another margarita. Working out got even harder, mealtimes were boring as hell, and we were counting down to the end from halfway through the first breakfast. “Only 89 more meals to go!”
After that…well… everything changed. Suddenly I had more energy than I’d had in years. Despite eating less, sorting my blood sugar out meant I wasn’t hungry between meals, and never needed to nap. That acne I’d had since I was 12 years old, and the digestive issues I couldn’t shake? Almost completely gone. Without going into too much detail, having a normal poo for the first time in a decade was more than a little exciting.
We figured out how to make interesting meals, and actually started looking forward to eating. Taking the time to cook together three times a day did good things for our relationship, too.
You’re not supposed to weigh yourself while on the Whole30, but of course we did anyway. Watching the pounds fall off, little by little each day, was the only remaining motivation we needed to last the full length of this thing.
30 days and 15 pounds later, the end finally rolled around. You’re supposed to slowly reintroduce the various food groups you’ve eliminated, to see how they effect you, so that’s what we did. End result? Dairy gave me major stomach cramps within a few minutes, gluten made me bloated and lethargic for the entire next day, and Coke Zero tasted like repeatedly Iicking a sugar bowl.
Of course, there’s not much point in doing something like the Whole30 if it doesn’t lead to fundamental changes. The world is full of miracle weight loss stories, from people who put it all back on again a year later. If I’d just gone back to the carb-heavy, vegetable-free diet I’d had before, that’s what would have happened to me, too.
So what did I do instead? Basically, went paleo. Yep, I’ve become one of those douchebags, at least 80-90% of the time. I’ve cut out dairy almost completely. Bread and other gluten-filled foods are rare. There’s lots of fish, chicken and red meat, plenty of vegetables, some fruit. I cook with extra-virgin olive oil, and don’t have more than a glass or two of wine, once or twice a week. Pretty much nothing out of a packet, minimal sugar or sweeteners.
I’ve left enough leeway to be able to go out and enjoy a meal with friends two or three times a week, and while I’ll try to make a healthy choice if there’s one on the menu, I don’t get bent out of shape if there isn’t. Fortunately, many of the people I know here in Lisbon also try to eat well, so we usually end up at restaurants with good options. Having a support group helps with many things in life, and this is no exception.
The biggest trick? Not keeping crap in the house. If I don’t buy it, I can’t eat it. Going to the supermarket after the gym helps a lot, too. If I’m hot, sweaty and sore after a workout, I don’t want to undo the good work by buying chocolate instead of carrots.
I never, ever thought I’d have the willpower to stop eating the foods I loved. Especially cheese. Man, did I love cheese. After giving them up for a month, though, many of those foods made me physically sick when I tried them again. Turns out, when the choice is feeling like crap for several hours or leaving that hunk of cheddar on the plate, it’s not much of a choice at all.
Since arriving in Lisbon seven months ago, I’ve lost a little over 13kg, or almost exactly thirty pounds. Even while training for half-marathons in the past, I’d never got under 80kg. I’m now 74kg, and a few days ago I fitted into a pair of size 30 jeans for the first time in my adult life.
My double chin has disappeared, as has all but the last stubborn inch of belly fat. I’ve got muscle definition where I didn’t even know I had muscles, and have to keep buying new shirts and trousers every couple of months because the old ones start hanging off me like tents.
My skin and digestion are the best they’ve been in 30 years, and likewise my mood, energy levels and enthusiasm for life. I had blood work done recently, and other than a few vitamins and minerals that need a slight boost, I got a clean bill of health. Blood sugar and cholesterol, two things I was particularly concerned about, are absolutely fine. I can guarantee that wasn’t the case earlier this year.
Travel makes some people fitter and healthier, but for me, it was the opposite. While nearly five years of travel had many positives — seeing so much of the world, meeting so many wonderful people, building a business that continues to fund my existence — it also made me fat, sick and sad. Stopping to regain control of my diet and exercise was the best decision I’ve made in years.
Given that, I don’t know what it would take to get me to commit to a life of permanent travel again. A few weeks at a time, sure. A few months at a time, yeah, maybe. Endless travel, though? I don’t think so. Right now, it really doesn’t feel like it’d be worth losing control of my diet, exercise and overall health again.
I like this version of me.
I’d prefer him to stick around.