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By The Way
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The power of working out on vacation

Next trip, actually use those workout clothes you packed

(Min Heo/Illustration for The Washington Post)
4 min

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Open a travel guidebook, and you’ll find recommendations on where to stay, what to eat and what to see. You’ll read about annual festivals, etiquette considerations, noteworthy museums and cooking classes, but workout options rarely make the cut, unless they’re emblematic of a place, such as surfing in Costa Rica or skiing in Tahoe.

I think that’s a shame — and not because I believe in strict exercise routines or shun relaxing on vacation. This has nothing to do with diet culture, calories or Western beauty standards. This is a treatise on the power of workouts to cure jet lag, increase your endorphins and your appetite, and challenge your mind and body in a new place.

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The concept was planted for me at an early age; my parents are active and prioritized jogging, swimming and going on bike tours on family vacations. As I got older, I started traveling heavily for work, and if I didn’t exercise on the road, I rarely had the opportunity, because I was only at home for short periods of time. Over hundreds of trips, I found that even if I only had 20 minutes to stretch, my body felt better after 12-hour flights or 16-hour workdays as a freelancer.

But I’m not telling you to suck up precious vacation time in a windowless hotel gym. Now that I have a less-hectic 9-to-5, I don’t work out when I travel out of necessity; I do because it can create some of my favorite memories from a trip.

Exhibit A: Portugal, 2o17. I was in Porto to learn about the wine industry and needed to do something that wasn’t drinking. To combat the long car rides to wineries and hours of tastings, I searched Google Maps for a Muay Thai gym. I had fallen in love with the sport while living in Thailand.

Boom Academy was far from tourist areas. They had a beginner’s class that fit my schedule, so I packed a bag with workout clothes and walked from my hostel to the gym. Through Google Translate, I asked the staff to buy a day pass. This doesn’t always work; sometimes gyms are strictly for members. But I was lucky, and they threw me in the class.

Did it feel low-key humiliating sometimes? Yes. I don’t speak Portuguese‚ and I’m not good at Muay Thai, but I could still follow the instructor and have a great time playing the role of the idiot foreigner. It was a social experience; you bond with people you sweat with, language barrier or not.

I left sweaty, humbled and relieved. We don’t always notice how much stress we carry when we travel, and exercising can take away some of the load, like when your dentist tells you to unclench when you didn’t realize you were clenching in the first place.

You should work out on your next long flight. Here’s how.

I can tell you dozens of similar stories. I’ve surfed in Peru, played pickup soccer in Morocco and biked in Maine.

The workout doesn’t have to be rigorous to be beneficial: Find a realistic way to move that gives you a taste of local life. Trying tai chi, going for a walk in the woods or getting on the water can be just as satisfying.

Ultimately, this is a case for slow travel. Instead of jam-packing your day with sightseeing, you can carve out an hour to appreciate a place beyond its Tripadvisor highlights and catch magic in its mundanity. If I hadn’t gone to a gym in Kathmandu, Nepal, I would have never seen this man holding his dog’s paw to cross the street on its hind legs.

And, bonus, you prime your body for one of travel’s greatest joys: eating.