Exercise On Vacation: Essential Or Pure Evil?

A family holiday often means bad food and slothful habits. Jason Gay says it doesn’t have to be this way.

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For the past week or so I’ve been on a family “vacation”—I put vacation in quotes, because who really goes on vacation anymore? It’s 2017, lazybones—nobody unplugs. I spent a half-hour this morning running around my in-laws’ waterside idyll trying to locate Wi-Fi so I could file this column. When I finally got a strong enough signal to hit send, I celebrated as if I’d landed a lunar module.

My children are both under the age of 5, so there’s not going to be a lot of hammock and cocktail time for their old man, anyway. These kids wake up at dawn with the roosters, and never stop running.

As you can tell, I’m a little grumpy. I need exercise. But it’s proving harder than it looks.

Vacation exercise is an almost paradoxical concept. There was a time when exercise was one of those things, like the office, you took a vacation from—you slept in, stayed up late, ate the food you wanted, drank sugary drinks with umbrellas, even though you knew they’d give you a headache in the a.m. The most exercise you might get was carrying four chairs and a Styrofoam cooler across the beach. Or body-surfing. Your workout might be playing badminton for the one time every year you play badminton. Or mini golf. Regular golf! The perfect vacation exercise was 18 holes of meandering regular golf.

Somewhere along the way, however, vacation exercise intensified. Sweat became as important as sunblock. In resort towns, there are now spinning classes and boot camps with all the cultishness of city and suburban fitness. Wearable, phone apps and remote coaching have made it easy to not miss a heartbeat or interval in marathon or triathlon prep. Amateur athletes no longer take holidays. Wake up at 5:45 and look out the window at the shoreline, and you’ll see someone standing contemplatively by the water—and then dropping to the sand to do a set of Burpees.

I could mock this, I really could. Fitness is another thing we’ve dragged on vacation with us, along with our emails and conference calls. This is likely the exact opposite of healthy. We probably should let our down time be genuine down time, and stop importing all of our anxieties along with us.

But I don’t care. I want in. I want to be one of those smug vacation exercisers. I want to stay disciplined and fit and relentless. I don’t care if it’s inconsistent with the idea of relaxing on vacation—I am one of those hopeless weirdos who finds exercise relaxing. I want to feel purposeful. I want to keep my chiseled beach abdominals. (I do not have chiseled beach abdominals. My abdominals have the consistency of a rubber Richard Nixon Halloween mask.)

This is how I think vacation exercise can be done:

1. Keep a plan. Vacation exercise isn’t a time for improvisation. There’s no “maybe I’ll jog home from the beach.” Trust me: you aren’t going to jog home from the beach. You’re going to stop and have an ice cream sandwich. Develop a schedule and stick to it. Maybe you’re the early riser cyclist, joining the local spandex pack. Maybe you like to run when the kids are taking a nap. Sunset yoga? Perfect. Swimming? Even better—Swimming is the ultimate vacation two-fer. Whatever you do, consistency is everything. “Playing it by ear” leads to…beer. (Not that there is anything wrong with vacation beer.)

2. Do the thing you love. Your summer vacation isn’t the time you’re suddenly, after 40 years, going to take up power-lifting. Keep it simple. If you’re a jogger, jog. If you’re a walker, walk. You might find that the activity you love is gloriously easier to do on vacation. For me, it’s tennis. I live in New York City, where it’s easier to build a farmhouse with your bare hands than find an open court to play tennis. As soon as we get out of town, I weep with happiness when I see all the available public courts.

3. Sweat is sweat. You don’t need any fancy sport or wicking clothes to get a vacation workout. My father-in-law, for example: he’s old school. He’s not the country club type. He’s not going paddleboarding. He is, however, utterly content to spend a 90 degree vacation day with a pair of hedge clippers, or taking a shovel to dig out an old, decaying tree stump. There’s no way you’re telling me that digging out an old, decaying tree stump is less exercise than golf. Have you ever dug out an old, decaying tree stump? It might be more exercise than a decathlon. There’s a reason my father-in-law can still beat me up.

4. Eat that clam roll, for crying out loud. Come on. It’s summer. I know it costs $22, and you’re going to have to work out for an extra half-hour tomorrow, but live a little. You literally have the rest of the year to pretend you like kale.