Early in grad school, I had an opportunity to go to the Bahamas over Spring Break. A friend of mine had a friend who’d graduated a few years earlier and worked security at one of the casinos in Freeport on Grand Bahama island. So we got to go to the Caribbean on a budget. We flew in on a cheap flight and stayed with him for free.
While there, we had drinks and rich food at the casino. We would then spend time dancing (badly, because I hate dancing), at the beach, or milling around the casino floor. Our host also took us to some of the local hangouts that were off the beaten path. The other spring breakers didn’t know about these, so there were fewer obnoxious drunks there. And there was all sorts of local cuisine that we feasted on.
Most of it seemed ordinary at first glance, such as chicken and mutton dishes, and even macaroni and cheese. But the Bahamians take these ordinary dishes and beat them half to death with herbs and spices. So something that seems mundane is an explosion of flavor.
Our days consisted of walking (occasionally hitchhiking) back and forth from our host’s apartment to the casino, the beach, or various other sites, drinking and eating to excess, and then availing of ourselves of the various entertainments on the island.
After a week of good times, we made our way home. When I returned home, I stepped on the scale with a feeling of trepidation. And noticed that I’d lost about three pounds. I couldn’t figure it out at the time, but now that I’m tracking and measuring what I eat and how much I exercise, I know what happened. Even though we were eating and drinking everything in sight, we were also moving around constantly and staying active. So that offset the effects of all of the debauchery.
Now, not every vacation involves activity. Many “vacations” are just family visits, so it’s easy to get fatter. Last Thanksgiving, I wrote a piece about the amount of overeating I do over the holidays. Although that piece was primarily about not worrying about going nuts over the holidays, the side point of that was if all of our recreation time is sedentary, we’re in trouble. All such trips tend to involve lots of drinking and eating of rich food. But on some, we can offset this just by staying in motion.
I tested this with a recent trip to Washington D.C. My wife and I spent time in a gin bar, gulping various outlandish forms of the stuff. Another night we found a whiskey bar, with literally every type of whiskey in the world, including places that we don’t normally associate with whiskey, such as Japan. We ate massive lobsters at a Cajun place, fish and chips and bangers and mash at a British place, and we went to Nando’s.
Washington is one of the few places in America that has Nando’s, a chicken place of South African origin. A visit to Nando’s involves consuming copious quantities of spicy, grilled chicken, with a variety of unhealthy sides and sauces. And then chasing it with craft beers. Which, as I’ve pointed out in a previous piece, really aren’t good for you.
This and the other places we went to should have been a diet killer. But they weren’t. Because between all of this we walked through the Washington Zoo, which is free because it’s a part of the Smithsonian. We saw gorillas and bison and elephants and, of course, the pandas. We also took the Capitol tour, then walked through the underground tunnel to the National Archives afterward, then took a leisurely walk down the Washington mall afterward. Amongst other things.
I think on an average day we walked for about four hours. We had to walk because there was so much drinking involved. That much walking translates into over 1,000 calories burned each day. When you do that every day, you can eat almost anything you want.
It’s not that hard to get exercise while traveling. Overseas excursions also offer opportunities for unintentional exercise. A recent trip to Africa involved a ten-hour layover in Zurich. So I spent hours putzing around this unfamiliar town, seeing sights, eating Swiss chocolate, and walking it off.
And even on stops without the long layover, I burned calories just getting through the airport. I seem to always have the misfortune to have connecting flights that are on the literal opposite side of the airport from the arriving flight. And in some of the world’s more ridiculously huge airports (looking at you, Atlanta), getting from one terminal to the other is a trek of heroically epic proportions.
Not to mention that you’re encumbered the entire way. You have to keep your bag on you at all times or risk having some overzealous airport guard snatch your unattended bag and detonate it as a possible bomb threat.
And not only did I have a carry-on, but my wife insisted that I buy liquor at every duty-free store on the way. Since a trip to Africa from the United States routinely involves three or four legs, I was toting the equivalent of a mini-bar by the time I arrived.
So not only was I taking a lengthy expedition through the labyrinthine corridors of the world’s airports, but I was also doing it heavily encumbered. Which is far more effective at burning calories than ordinary walking.
When we got there, our trip to Africa was much more sedentary than the trip to DC. We spent a lot of time riding in a van on safari. But the calories burned just getting there more than offset the dietary largesse we engaged in when we got there.
And there was a lot of largesse. Very outlandish largesse. The restaurants at the safari lodges have wildebeest and impala and warthog and crocodile (yes, I did it) and various other things on the menu. You can see them on safari and then return to the lodge and eat their recently murdered cousins for dinner.
Of course, sometimes we prefer something that doesn’t require two days of flying. One thing we can do is a cruise. There are plenty of liners that leave from the Port of Tampa. To get there, we just drive across the bay, instead of flying around the world. So it’s very convenient for us to cruise the Caribbean or the Gulf.
As usual, this type of vacation involves a lot of drinking and eating of rich food. By the way, I swear we’re not alcoholics, we just drink socially. A lot. But combine that with touring tropical islands, parasailing, riding banana boats, or just swimming in the boat’s pool, and we come back thinner than we left. If you don’t count liver damage, a cruise makes you healthier.
Another option is theme parks. I know, it’s kind of a “normie” thing, as the kids say. But it’s convenient for us. Busch Gardens is right across Tampa Bay, and the various theme parks of Orlando are only a couple of hours away. Disney, in particular, is a surprisingly good workout. For starters, the parking lots at Disney are so far from the park that they may not be in the same county. And once you actually get to the park, you spend a fair amount of time taking evasive action.
This is because one thing you notice at Disney is about ninety million baby carriages. New mothers and fathers charge all over the parks, pushing baby carriages at breakneck speed. You would think they would be more careful, but they seem to know that people will get out of their way in deference to the newborns. I used to be annoyed by the fact that they’re effectively using their babies as battering rams, but now I look on the bright side. I find myself dodging more often than an MMA fighter, so I’m sure it’s good exercise.
And we always engorge on the massive, mutant smoked turkey legs that are ubiquitous at these parks. Turkey legs so big you could probably beat someone to death with them. Succulent, decadent things that come with over a thousand calories. But it doesn’t matter, because we always burn more calories than we consume.
Now I don’t think everything at the amusement park is a calorie burner. For example, riding roller coasters is probably not exercise. There’s no exercise option in Cronometer for “screaming at the top of your lungs”. Not that I would ever do that. I’m talking about my wife, of course. But even if it isn’t exercise, just the time you spend walking is plenty.
So any vacation which involves actually doing stuff is fine. There’s no need to feel guilty about splurging a bit when it comes to food and drink. As long as you stay active, you’ll avoid any weight gain, and might even lose a pound or two. If you’re just sitting on the couch at Mom’s house, that’s different. Just sitting on any couch is a good way to expand your waistline.
But if you’re constantly moving around in some exotic locale, some state or national park, or almost any other possible destination, you’ll have no trouble keeping the weight off. So eat whatever you want and have a good time. Just make sure you work it off by seeing the sights and enjoying the amenities.
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