The Backpacker Weight-loss Plan

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about the lengths some companies are going to with their architects in order to get us “knowledge economy” fat-butts to get some exercise during the day. They’re putting parking lots as far away from the offices as they can, in order to make people walk further. They’re installing wide, well-lit stairways to encourage people to use them and are slowing down the elevator speeds to further prod people to give up and use their legs. On big company campuses with a cafeteria, the place where workers get their meal has been moved from the middle of campus to a remote corner, making employees work off at least a little of that 1,000-calorie lunch. This is what it has come to: as a nation we’re getting so fat that we have to be forced to keep ourselves from having a heart attack.

On the other end of the scale, you probably know someone who is a fitness nut. As addicted to exercise as some of us our to our morning coffee. They read fitness magazines, they know all the gym workers by name, and build their schedule around their workouts. The thought of leaving this routine behind when they go overseas fills them with a twinge of dread. “How will I stay in shape?” they ask. “How do I keep from getting fat?”

Anyone who is fat already will do wonders for their body by traveling around the world. Anyone who is a fitness nut will likely weigh the same or less when they return. Long-term travel is a painless weight-loss plan.

What do you do all day when you travel on the cheap? You walk, you swim, you hike, you bike, you lift weights (your pack), and you walk some more. Who needs a gym? Most travelers walk for miles on any typical day: looking around for a place to stay, sightseeing, walking to and from restaurants and bars, running errands, shopping, and getting to the train or bus station. Some of this while carrying around a pack. You walk because it’s cheap, it’s convenient, and in many cases, an adventure. Then there’s the exercise you do for fun. You’ll probably spend lots of time at beaches, swimming and snorkeling. There are volcanoes to hike, rivers to raft, mountain ranges to trek, temples to bike to. If you want, you can easily get into a pick-up game of basketball or soccer with the locals.

Then there’s the food. Yes, in Eastern Europe the heavy food and inexpensive beer is not exactly diet food, but in most of the world it’s cheaper and easier to eat healthy than not. In most of Asia, the cuisine is based on rice, noodles, vegetables, seafood, and chicken. Even if you pig out every meal, you’re not likely to gain weight. In Latin America you’ll be eating the staples of tortillas, beans, chicken, and rice. You’re not tempted by snacks in your pantry and fast-food joints on every corner.

You’ll also lose weight in some countries because you need to avoid eating meat. Once you see a butcher shop, you’ll know why. I lost 20 pounds/8 kilos while I was eating vegetarian-only in India for 6 weeks and was looking thinner than I had since high school when I left. (Thankfully I was off to Turkey next, where they put meat in almost every dish and standards are much higher.) Plus you can’t always get three squares a day: on long bus or train rides, you have to settle for what’s available when you stop. Sometimes you won’t want to touch what’s on offer.

None of this applies to a week-long vacation of course. A short break from work, hedonism, being carted around in taxis or a tour bus, then back to the rat race you go. It takes some time and movement to get the benefit. But when I think back on my three trips around the globe, I can picture very few overweight backpackers. Most of those had only been away for a month or less. So don’t let yourself get to the point where you need a slow elevator to force you into exercise. Hit the road instead—it’s a lot more fun than the gym anyway.