On Vacation? Lose A Little Something.

By Vicky Hallett
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The cliche is that women lose weight before their weddings. But I'm thinking I might slim down on my honeymoon instead.

Nope, I'm not dragging my new husband on a romantic gym getaway. We've settled on Argentina and an itinerary that calls for tangoing in San Telmo, wandering through Recoleta, whitewater rafting in Mendoza and tooling around wine country on bike. That plus a little smooching -- which requires about 70 calories an hour -- and I can probably get away with gelato every day.

Sounds like a NEAT plan to physician James Levine, author of the new book "Move a Little, Lose a Lot" and director of the NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) Center at the Mayo Clinic. The idea is that while one grueling treadmill session might burn 500 calories, you can easily burn twice that in a day by living actively: by, say, visiting your colleagues' offices instead of sending instant messages, strolling to a place for lunch 15 minutes away rather than brown-bagging it at your desk or choosing to self-propel for part of your next vacation rather than taking in the scene from a bus tour.

"A big part of life we've lost is being an adventurer, getting out of our chairs," Levine says. "It doesn't have to be climbing K2 on the south face."

Levine had been studying obesity when, on a business trip a decade ago, he was struck with his new weight-loss theory during a conversation in a Mexican bar with -- who else? -- the bartender. The gentleman was about Levine's age but looked "much more splendid," Levine says, and the secret to his youthfulness was simple: He walked his kids back and forth to school, played soccer in the neighborhood and worked on his feet.

Within a year, Levine and two colleagues had published research into the benefits of the movements of daily life -- things like getting up frequently to go to the coffee shop (and then to the bathroom). And he emphasizes the importance of simple habits like maintaining an upright posture, or just fidgeting. And Mayo's NEAT program was off and running. (The "thermogenesis" part of the acronym means heat creation -- that is, burning calories.)

America has skillfully managed to export obesity, but there are still plenty of folks around the world like that bartender who can provide role models. Just follow the advice of Keith Bellows, editor of National Geographic Traveler, who encourages his readers to "try to live like a local." In Beijing, it may mean practicing tai chi near the Forbidden City, while in Paris it could be using a rent-a-bike to get around town. "It's so easy. You put a coin in a slot and you can ride it across the city," he says.

And wherever you go, he advises, bring good walking shoes. Even if you're not usually a wanderer, the chance of every amble being a once-in-a-lifetime moment can persuade your legs to hold out longer than usual. Jennifer Di Mucci of Contiki Tours, constantly hears travelers amazed by the distance they've managed to log in a day. "With them, it's mind over matter. They would never walk 17 miles at home, but there was so much to see and try," says Di Mucci, who recommends that anyone visiting her in Philly run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art like Rocky. (Or at least try.)

Not only will the extra activity allow you to indulge a bit more in the breakfast buffet, it'll also immerse you in the local scene. Michael Gazaleh, founder of City Running Tours, which offers guided jogs in Washington, New York, Chicago, San Diego, Charleston and Austin, says that he runs wherever he wakes up. "If I don't run, I don't feel like myself," he says.

The extra perk when he's away from home with his running shoes is that he can discover a new world. "You'll find these streets that cars can't go down and make your way through parks," he says. All the while, he's getting a feel for the layout of the city and getting a sense of things he might want to take in at a slower pace later.

Taking on unfamiliar streets on your own might be more adventure than some people are up to -- although concierges and the Web site Mapmyrun.com can help provide routes and sometimes even running buddies. And for a fee, City Running Tours makes the experience about as excuse-free as possible: A guide with a pack of water, snacks, a souvenir T-shirt and a camera (for proof of your athleticism) shows up at your hotel lobby and takes you as far as you want as fast as you want to the area you want and brings you safely home.

Levine insists that NEAT living can start at any time. Like right now, you could stand up to read this and burn more calories than you would seated. That's why he developed a treadmill/desk combo that allows people to amble at 1 mph while they're at the office.

But through his work with thousands of patients coming through his lab, Levine has come to realize that vacations provide a unique opportunity to kick-start a lifestyle change. You no longer can rely on those usual justifications for avoiding activity. No boss is there to blow up if you're not glued to your chair, there's no need to wear dress clothes that you worry about getting sweaty, and there's no getting stuck in rush-hour traffic for hours on end.

"This is your opportunity to draw that line in the sand for a new me," Levine says. "Part of the fun of a vacation is [that] I can be different. I normally can't go dancing until 2 in the morning when I have work the next day. On vacation, what's your excuse?"

On your return, you might not be up for clubbing every night (after all, that dreaded boss is back), but you can hold onto the feeling the experience gave you. "You've switched on the engine, and you have that sense you know you can do it," Levine says.

And that's a souvenir that'll last longer than any snapshot.

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