This past week my wife and I returned from Munich after a two-week riverboat tour on the Danube and Rhine Rivers and a few final days in Amsterdam. We had also traveled to a family wedding the weekend before departing and to Portugal and Morocco in the weeks before that as well. We don’t usually travel this much but some of these were scheduled a while back and the challenge of traveling for most of 2 months while trying to remain fit was no easy task.
There’s an old scientific study where healthy 20-year-olds were made totally inactive and fed for a few weeks; despite no sickness, they lost major strength and organ function quickly. The study reports they needed an average of seven days of normal function for every one day of inactivity to recover their baseline. In short, it’s much easier to stay in shape than to get back in shape and we were facing 14 days of exotic European food exquisitely prepared with unlimited local wines and beers to mirror our travel locations. This standard Viking riverboat had no fitness room, and the upstairs walking deck was closed many days for tight underpasses.
I thought it might be helpful to pass along some health tips that we learned on our trip:
Be sure to check out some of our photos at the end.
Our first smart decision was to plan ahead, as we knew we had enough floor space for a yoga mat, so my wife (Lindsay) and I packed our own. I am a big fan of stretchy bands as they pack light with a variety, so I can have a near-full weightlifting workout. I also brought along a small batch of my favorite morning sugar-free electrolyte powder and a reduced set of my daily supplements. We also scheduled as many biking and walking tours when off the boat rather than the bus or driving options. We rallied each other and only missed the early workout twice when early departures impacted our schedule. Although there was not much space, it allowed a modest sweat, stretch, and strain to start each day. In the spirit of “perfect is the enemy of good”, our very average and short workouts kept us stable and averted the steep decline of inactivity. One might think this was “party pooper” material given our vacations status, but there are 1440 minutes in the day and the 15-30 we dedicated to our pre-shower AM workout made the rest of the delights of the day better.
We also agreed to set boundaries and to skip breakfast unless there was an outing that eliminated the daily large lunch on the boat. The chef brilliantly created diners to match the European culture we went through each day, but the morning meals were pretty much routine so skipping them allowed for an extended noneating window period and some reduction in calories. We also tried to be reasonable with the extensive wine and beer selections from regional areas we crossed and generally chose the driest wine option (low sugar). Since most of the beers from this region are pilsners, Kolsch, and lagers; I could select those that are less dense than the porters, stouts, and ales from other regions. We also skipped or greatly reduced the intake every few days to rest the alcohol detoxification system. Oh, the dangers of the free drink upgrade package:-).
We also tried to stay aware of the natural “foraging” instinct, namely, that if you’re full and ready to stop but are presented with further options you’ll find a way to eat it. This is certainly a problem with buffets or when kind waiters encourage you to try different things from this new region. Knowing this temptation, we allowed ourselves only two and at most 3 items from the menu to trim down the potpourri of appetizers, starters, entrees, and desserts to choose from. As the trip went on, it was clear that 10 to 20% of the passengers were fighting a respiratory infection. We then made it a daily ritual to have two to four cups of their remarkable mixed berry and rosehip tea and made it very strong to garner the maximal polyphenols and vitamin C.
Despite our best efforts at health goals, the high-quality European-sourced foods, the tight living quarters in the damp river environment coupled with the nightly celebrations required serious detoxification strategies. I love to start those somewhat challenging mornings immediately upon rising with a hot wash towel to wipe down my skin surfaces. This one-minute exercise opens the pores and removes some dead skin so one can easily start to sweat with the workout mentioned above. Generally, I immediately feel well after doing it, especially if I couple it with a quick baking soda toothbrush and gargle session, saline nasal rinse followed by 16 ounces of clean water with electrolyte added (yes, I brought my frother for this purpose). Within a few minutes, I’m feeling great and can stroll down to the coffee and tea station to get Lindsay her English tea and my clean coffee with our Yeti mugs that we brought along. Although it was generally somewhat cold in the morning, we would open the sliding door two to six inches to get some fresh air in our very small room. The yoga and inverted positions help move lymphatic fluid and prevent stasis and further the recovery for the day.
To really turbocharge your morning and at the risk of sounding like a masochist, I will confess that I discovered that the cold water in the very small stand-up shower was very cold. This allowed an electrifying cold immersion experience with the full stream hitting the head to finish the shower. Generally, it is thought that if the base of the skull gets cold, one gets most of the benefit of cold immersion on releasing the favorable catecholamines norepinephrine that helps with healing and diminishing inflammation. This was the secret sauce that made me want to skip down the long hallway and smile at the wonderful staff and guests. Start this cold exposure gradually If you have any cardiac issues and remember to stay in a nostril breathing zone as best as possible to aid a relaxed and poised parasympathetic response.
The final step is upon returning home and how to jump back into the new time zone and mitigate the impact of 12 hours in a small airplane seat in the coach section. I first wanted to get a good sweat after returning, so I hit the sauna where I ingested 2 to 3 charcoal capsules and a liter of water. The charcoal powder is a great binder to pull heavy metals and other things out of your GI track and of course the sauna has many benefits in addition to sweating out toxins. We then tried to stay up until at least 8:00 o’clock the first evening and used melatonin to help with the 6-hour time difference to get back in synchrony. In the morning, I tried to get a workout and look at the sun as early as possible to reset the “bookends” of my new Eastern Time zone day. I never had any trouble getting back to the work schedule with this recipe.
As a final thought on staying healthy while traveling, I can’t finish without mentioning the importance of being a gracious and generous guest in these foreign lands. Travel is an opportunity to look at the world through a different lens and therefore be open-minded to modifying our understanding of things. In addition to churches, castles, and museums, the greatest opportunity may be the people to listen and share values and ideas. The learning opportunity exists not only with the highly educated guides, fellow guests, and directors, but also with the housekeepers, service staff, and simple street merchants that dutifully show up with a smile every day. I tried to remember that I was a guest in their country and an ambassador for ours and therefore always be kind and generous. This is one of grandma’s rules and it certainly served to support our mental and emotional health the busy travel schedule.
Well, we are happy to be home and despite all the travel, I may even be on board for the next outing; the winter climb of Mt. Washington, NH, with my buddy Phil to celebrate our birthday week this January. I am happy I don’t have to start over getting in shape for this extreme trek. I hope some of these tips support your health on your next trip, and until then…
Stay Strong and Curious,
And remember to be your own best doctor.
Here are a few of our pictures from our journey! Click on the picture to see them larger.
Disclaimer: This information is not meant as direct medical advice. Readers should always review options with their local medical team. This is the sole opinion of Dr. Meakin based on a literature review at the time of the blog and may change as new evidence evolves.