Sprawled across the sun-soaked deckchair, we imagine ourselves sipping on Piña Coladas, nibbling on a selection of delectable honey-roasted peanuts, and devouring the local cuisine without a care in the world.
This all while effortlessly staying restrained and maintaining that shredded physique we’ve spent the previous few months carefully crafting.
We don’t lose any of that hard-earned muscle we’ve built, nor put on a layer of body fat around our washboard abs and slabs of granite for pecs. Bliss.
Sprawled across the sun-soaked deckchair, we find ourselves singed to a crisp, guzzling down five too many Piña Coladas and chucking down handfuls after handfuls of honey-roasted peanuts. Not to mention the four ice-creams and two pitchers of beer we’ve inhaled by seven o’clock each evening.
We end up neglecting levels of restraint, retain enough glycogen-filled water to declare a water shortage warning, and wonder who the hell that pregnant creature is gawking back at us in the hotel bedroom mirror.
We desecrate all that hard-earned muscle we’ve built, boast activity levels a sloth on muscle relaxants would be proud of, and wind up looking and feeling exactly like we did six months ago. Woe.
There seems to be no middle ground with going on vacation. We’re either told to either treat it like a bodybuilder’s retreat, where consuming anything other than chicken and broccoli is deemed sinful, or, alternatively, empowered by a thin-privileged Instagram post to just say ‘fuck it; it would be rude not to have two pizzas for breakfast.’ Unfortunately, each piece of advice is about as useful as using ketchup as a bookmark for your vacation read.
Yes, life is too short not to enjoy a day frolicking in the sun cavorting an impromptu ice-cream sandwich just before lunch and an alcoholic beverage before dinner, but, while we may consume more food than we’re used to and exercise less than we should while abroad, the problems arise when the seesaw tilts too far in the other direction.
The notion we should let everything fall by the wayside during a week dipping our toes into the ocean is the reason why many end up worse off upon their return – anyone who implores you to ‘just let go and enjoy yourself’ is missing the point. There’s no ‘on/off switch’ we press when embarking on a health and fitness journey for life; doing so begets that ‘one step forward, five steps back’ mentality.
While you should indulge alongside friends and family and enjoy the unique eating experiences on offer, you shouldn’t end up balls-deep in a family-sized pack of Lay’s potato chips at two in the morning, wondering why you can’t see your knees when you look down at the floor. Pushing that pause button on your fitness adventure is setting you up for failure.
Where do we stand, then? We don’t want to ruin our hard work, nor do we wish to miss out on the enjoyment of an all-inclusive breakfast buffet. The answer lies in the middle. And here’s how we’re going to do that:
It’s rare you’ll wake up one February Monday morning and decide to hop on a plane for a spontaneous two-week break in the Maldives. More often than not, you’ll have some pre-warning about your upcoming vacation. If you know when you’ll be jetting off, how long you’ll be away, where you’ll be staying, and what will be happening in your life at that current time, you can plan.
Formulating a refined strategy for your vacation arrives in two forms: the long and the short-term.
Long-term planning enables you to tailor different phases of your health and fitness journey around life events, such as weddings, parties, and, yes, vacations. For example, if you’re going away in July, why not introduce a dedicated muscle-building phase a few weeks prior, where an increased calorie target may be encouraged? If you’ve got a one-week trip abroad planned for December, why not implement a diet break during those seven days, where executing monk-like restraint may not be as necessary? Affording yourself a degree of flexibility while on vacation – in line with the goals you have – relieves some of the pressure of displaying disciplined decision-making. Look at your calendar and plan appropriately.
Planning is also effective in the short term.
Through the ethereal magic of the internet, we’re now granted the opportunity to research. We can investigate what drinks and snacks the hotel has on offer, what restaurants are located nearby, and what high-protein snacks we can purchase from the local supermarket for the walking tour. Why waste this opportunity to pre-empt what you’ll be consuming before you sit down and become overwhelmed with the seven types of cheese starters available? We know that relying on motivation and willpower to make choices is futile; remove that hurdle by taking the decision-making process out of the equation.
Similarly, can you think about planning and prioritizing your meals and snacks the night before? Anticipating which meals we’re going to conscientiously savor, rather than mindlessly hoovering up everything in sight, promotes focus and discipline at other mealtimes.
You’ve decided you desperately want the Butter Pecan and Rocky Road ice cream the neighborhood gelato shop has on offer, so decide you’ll forgo the mid-afternoon Mojito tomorrow. You know you’re going out for lunch on Friday, so can you choose the fruit salad at the breakfast buffet instead to kickstart your day? Prioritize which meal or snack you’ll enjoy so every other eating opportunity doesn’t turn into a sponsored eat-a-thon.
When we form conditional plans, in which we forecast the precise behaviors we’ll execute in response to a specific cue, we’ll increase our chances of staying on track, like when we use Implementation Intentions.
Telling yourself ‘when situation X arises, I will perform response Y’ is effective for sticking to goals and habits. Your plans to quell the obstacles that arise while on vacation are often the difference between success and failure (1). For example:
-> IF I’m by the pool, THEN I will only drink water
-> IF I have a starter for dinner, THEN I won’t have dessert
-> IF I go out for lunch, THEN I will have fruit salad for breakfast
Creating a specific plan for when and where you’ll perform a particular behavior will reduce your chances of having to make tough decisions in the moment (2). As author Alan Lakin said, ‘Planning is bringing the future into the present so you can do something about it now.’
With fourteen types of chocolate croissants at breakfast and eight types of pasta to choose from at dinner, it makes sense for us to devour all the food we see as quickly as possible. We might never get this opportunity again, we reason with ourselves.
You don’t need a 7 Hot Tips To Stay On Track While On Vacation article to tell you that guzzling down your food like a cheetah on meth will leave you little chance of noticing when you’re full. Racing through your meal provides you with little chance of appreciating or enjoying your food. Which kinda sucks. It’s no wonder, therefore, that eating speed is a major determinant of bodyweight (3).
Taking that extra five seconds between mouthfuls is a straightforward, actionable skill that will undoubtedly lead you to eat less.
When we consume hyper-palatable foods, flavor enjoyment often increases past satiety. Which means we end up eating more than we need. The process of eating slowly, therefore, gives you the chance to notice when you’re full, savor your food, and inadvertently reduce your caloric intake without affecting hunger levels (4).
You might even want to set yourself a timer (should your partner let you have your phone at the table) to ensure you extend your meal beyond a fleeting three minutes and twenty seconds. Implementing clear-cut actions to execute at each mealtime that don’t forbid certain foods but increase fullness will promote an enjoyable and restrained vacation.
As soon as we spot the iced coffee making its way from the bar to the hot Spanish couple on the sunbed next to us, our taste buds perk up. ‘I’m feeling a bit parched actually; I think I want one,’ we tell ourselves. As soon as we sit down at the bar, the inviting aroma of crisps and pretzels gets those thoughts and cravings racing. ‘I really need a handful of nachos,’ we think.
We seem to be at the constant mercy of the urges and temptations we experience. No matter how hard we try, we just can’t say no to that extra snack, drink, or refreshing post-dinner Limoncello.
It’s important to remember, we don’t have to let the steady stream of internal statements and commands running through our heads define us. Most of us are living in a state of cognitive fusion – meaning, we buy into what our thoughts tell us and permit them to direct our actions.
We can change this, however. Just like a surfer rides the waves in the ocean, we’re similarly able to ‘surf’ the urges we experience.
We’re not looking to speed up, slow down, carve the water, or repair those compulsions, but simply allow a craving to rise, crest, and fall. We’re willing to accept a natural feeling and withstand its power without enduring the desire to fight or act upon it. This technique, labelled ‘Surfing The Urge’, is a valuable tool in practicing acceptance of our thoughts and cravings and still staying on track while on vacation (4).
By surfing the urge when we encounter temptation, we can accept the feeling and stay in control of our subsequent behaviors. By acknowledging and observing the thoughts we have (‘I’m currently having the urge for an iced coffee’) and being open to it (‘It’s perfectly acceptable to experience this urge’), we’re able to let these impulses appear and eventually fade away (‘I no longer have a craving for an iced coffee’).
We’re no longer left trying to fight these urges – and subsequently failing – but able to differentiate between what we need to act upon and what we don’t. This act of mindfulness has consistently been found to help change our self-destructive behaviors (5).
When you find yourself amid an internal battle with your mind don’t try to suppress it; think about scoring the intensity of the craving on a scale of 1-10 instead (‘My desire for that handful of pretzels is now a raging 9’). Don’t feel the need to censor or reduce the urge; simply notice the thought and how it’s affecting your body. You’ll soon see the craving start to dissipate (‘My desire for those salty snacks is now a 4’). Staying with your physical sensations, such as your breathing and desires, will allow the urge to rise, crest, and fall (‘What pretzels?’).
Moving on holiday often feels like we have to lug ourselves around with the local blue whale strapped to our stomachs. The heat, extra food, and delight at getting to take a hiatus from the usual invasion of deadlifts and Bulgarian split squats means the last thing we want to be doing is training – or walking, for that matter.
While we don’t need to indulge in a full-blown bout of workouts from Week Six of the 20-Rep Squat Program, it’s still imperative we do something.
Not only does extra movement increase our NEAT (the calories you burn from all the spontaneous activities you perform that aren’t labeled as ‘exercise,’ such as lifting your arm up and down to take a gulp from your poolside cocktail), but we’re able to afford ourselves a few more calories and maintain that hard-earned muscle mass from performing a few dedicated resistance-based exercises.
Here are a few straightforward tips to ensure you’re moving around as much as possible while on vacation:
As for training, I’d always advise performing something. Whether it be one dedicated strength-based session or two or three 20–30-minute bodyweight circuit-based workouts, searching for that elusive pump and elevating your heart rate is non-negotiable.
Most hotels now have small gyms available and, even if the machines look like they’re plucked from a 1950s vintage fitness ad and the dumbbells consign you to third-degree burns when you pick them up, there’s no excuse to hop in and crush a few quick-fire strength workouts.
Remember, the act of training is sometimes more important than the quality of the session itself. It’s not often even about building muscle or calories while training on vacation; if you’re now the type of person who trains while away, you’ll be the type of person who’s able to stay lean all year round. Change your identity and your identity will change you.
Give this awesome full-body, bodyweight session a go, either in your room, by the pool, or in the hotel gym:
A1 3-Second Eccentric Press-Up – 5 x 12
A2 1.5 Rep Bodyweight Squats – 5 x 12
A3 Table Inverted Rows – 5 x 12
A4 Hip Thrust – 5 x 12
A5 Plank Marches – 5 x 20-30 Seconds
A6 Reverse Lunges – 5 x 6/s
Complete one exercise straight after the other in a circuit fashion, resting 90-120 seconds between each full set
There’s no better time to cut loose than at the pool party or restaurant bar while on vacation. And we all know what that means: More beers chugged down than you’d find at an Oktoberfest reunion and a deluge of cocktails that would send those at the Betty Ford Rehab Clinic into a frenzy.
Unfortunately, liquid calories – namely those from liquor – can have devastating effects on progress. Not only are these apéritifs an easy way to mindlessly gulp down an abundance of calories, but they can impair our decision-making later in the day and even the following morning. Before you know it, you’ve exceeded your calorie budget for the day – let alone the week – and have taken seven steps back instead of maintaining that wonderful progress you’d previously made.
Here’s what you’re going to do to combat the inpouring of liquor available:
Turning your two-week vacation into a sponsored Alcoholics Anonymous event isn’t going to help anyone. Instead, you’re going to alternate between an alcoholic beverage and a zero-calorie drink when out for dinner or drinks.
Not only will you still get to enjoy the delight at sipping on a glass of foreign wine but inadvertently reduce the number of calories you consume while technically sipping the same volume of drink. It may go something like this:
8:00 pm – 1 Beer
8:30 pm – 1 Diet Coke
9:00 pm – 1 Glass of Wine
9:30 pm – 1 Diet Coke
10:00 pm – Rushing to the toilet and calling it a night because you’re full up but secretly fist-pumping the air because you’ve consumed half the number of calories you would have done previously
Much like putting your knife and fork down between bites, you’ll unwittingly become fuller quicker if you take your time when drinking. Set yourself an imaginary timer when consuming an alcoholic drink and let each thirst-quencher fill that allotted duration.
While friends and family may be on their sixth pint by the time you’ve finished your first, you’ll be content in the knowledge that you’ll still have enjoyed the refreshing taste of a spirit or two without overdosing on needless calories.
While I’m not in the market to promote those irritating ‘calorie-swap’ posts that swarmed Instagram circa 2019, they do, in this instance, have a point. If we can find lower-calorie alternatives that still provide enjoyment without overindulging unnecessarily we’ll reduce the amount we drink.
A vodka and slimline tonic instead of a bottle of wine and a Coors light beer instead of a pint of Stella will save on precious calories. Always search for alternatives when deciding what you’ll drink.
(For more on alcohol and fitness, check out How to Drink Without Compromising Your Progress (VIDEO).)
Whenever we find ourselves deep in the jovial debauchery of a night or day out while on vacation, we fear we won’t be able to enjoy ourselves if we don’t have a drink or indulge in a poolside burger and chips. ‘I really want it today,’ we tell ourselves.
It’s always important to remember, however, there’ll be plenty more opportunities to indulge in these moments – next time. And the time after that. And the time after that. Saying no now doesn’t mean you say no forever.
Try choosing the protein-rich salad instead of the burger today or the diet coke instead of the beer right now; in the full appreciation there’ll be many more opportunities to have these items at another point in time. Instead of pressing that ‘on/off switch,’ we merely turn the discipline dial up or down to suit our requirements at that time.
Exercising a slither of self-control is imperative while aiming to stay on track while away. If you’re able to decline an extra portion of curly fries at lunch, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to abstain from them tomorrow. It’s always going to be a better option to have fewer calories over the length of your stay, rather than trying to cram in as many items as possible because you fear you’ll never get the chance again.
‘Oh, why are you having a salad while on holiday?’
‘Why are you not drinking? You’re so boring.’
‘I feel bad if I don’t eat the same as everyone else.’
‘One won’t hurt.’
These are all common questions and thoughts we must deal with from the food police and ourselves. And, when we’re unable to accept these for what they are and still act in alignment with our goals, we succumb to unnecessary temptations.
Once we relieve ourselves of that scary feeling of being judged for our own healthy choices, we’re able to stay comforted in the knowledge we’re looking out for ourselves – and no one else. It doesn’t matter what others think, say, or do; you’re here to focus on the goals you have and to make the choices that take you closer to them.
Remember, nobody will look back tomorrow and think about what you did or didn’t eat that day. Don’t fear being judged.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the gluttony of being away. The misery of being stuck at home is replaced by moments of jubilance at being on vacation. Reminders of our long-term goals are swept aside for flashes of indulgence and pleasure. Why bother wasting precious time focusing on staying eye-lid-skin shredded when there are Spanish tortillas, honey-glazed cod fritters, and patatas bravas on offer at lunch?
It’s important, however, that, when attempting to stay on track while removed from the regularity of life, we remain cognizant of our goals, values, and ambitions. Falling prey to that stop/start cycle is a recipe for disaster. This awareness arrives in the form of Mindful Decision-Making.
It’s the function of having sensual awareness and focusing on the experience of what you’re shoving down your throat. Am I hungry? What do I really want to eat? How can I redirect my attention away from food until I’m actually famished? What choices can I make that will take me closer to my goals? Are my decisions aligned with my values?
This simple approach to staying on track while on vacation helps with the understanding of your internal (i.e., thoughts/emotions) and external (i.e., environment) cues to inhibit overeating (7). Most importantly, mindful-decision making has been found to be effective for weight loss (8).
Much like learning to play the piano or get really good at playing Fortnite, Mindful Decision-Making takes practice. There is, however, no better time to rehearse this skill than while away. Using guidelines and cues from your body will enable you to enjoy the gratifying taste and smells of foreign cuisines while still avoiding putting on a few pounds that you’ll have to work just as hard to get rid of again.
While the scope of mindfulness is far too wide-ranging to explore in this article, it’s important to note that such interventions have consistently been found to support weight loss. For example, an intervention focused on mindful eating at restaurants proved to be effective in helping women manage their weight, lower their average daily caloric intake, and enjoy increased diet-related self-efficacy (9).
Small actions such as sitting down to eat, noticing what tastes nice and what doesn’t, and searching for feelings of fullness will promote that vigilant decision-making process. You’ll soon find yourself making better choices at every mealtime without worrying about ruining all your progress.
1 – Sniehotta FF. Towards a theory of intentional behaviour change: plans, planning, and self-regulation. Br J Health Psychol. 2009 May;14 (Pt 2) :261-73. doi: 10.1348/135910708X389042. Epub 2008 Dec 19.
2 – Locke, Edwin & Latham, Gary. (2002). Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35Year Odyssey. American Psychologist – AMER PSYCHOL. 57. 705-717. 10.1037/0003-066X.57.9.705.
3 – Tanihara, S., Imatoh, T., Miyazaki, M., Babazono, A., Momose, Y., Baba, M., Uryu, Y., & Une, H. (2011). Retrospective longitudinal study on the relationship between 8-year weight change and current eating speed. Appetite, 57, 179-183.
4 – Robinson, Eric & Aveyard, Paul & Daley, Amanda & Jolly, Kate & Lewis, A. & Lycett, Deborah & Higgs, Suzanne. (2013). Eating attentively: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory and awareness on eating. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 97.
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7 – Nelson, J. B. (2017). Mindful eating: the art of presence while you eat. Diabetes Spectrum : A Publication of the American Diabetes Association, 30(3), 171–174.
8 – Anglin JC, Borchardt N, Ramos E, Mhoon K. Diet quality of adults using intuitive eating for weight loss – pilot study. Nutr Health. 2013 Jul-Oct;22(3-4):255-64. doi: 10.1177/0260106015601943. Epub 2015 Sep 23. PMID: 26399269.
9 – Timmerman, G. M., & Brown, A. (2012). The effect of a mindful restaurant eating intervention on weight management in women. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 44, 22-28.