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4 Tips for Staying Fit While Traveling

4 Tips for Staying Fit While Traveling

By | On 10 Apr, 2014

Whether you consider yourself an expert couch potato or a lean, mean fitness machine, chances are you will want to find an exercise groove while teaching English abroad. Not only does it help mitigate the massive amount of street snacks you’re bound to inhale, it’s a great way to establish a routine in your new life in another country. Plus, exercise helps battle stress and promotes clearer thinking (crucial for teachers working anywhere).

Before moving to China, I was royally spoiled with a million ways to work up a sweat in New York City: Bollywood dance classes, indoor rock-climbing, rooftop yoga, the list continues ad infinitum. Naturally, moving away from having so many options required a bit of adjustment upon arrival to Shanghai, as fitness cultures differ from country to country, city to city, and budget to budget. If you’re interested in keeping yourself moving while living abroad or traveling, check out my 4 fitness tips for expats.

1. Embrace exploration

You may have the perfect gym/dance studio/running path right across the street from your new apartment. If so, rejoice and lace up those shoes! Chances are, you’ll have to do a little bit of digging first. Start by asking your coworkers, expat groups, or neighbors what they know, and also, how they work out. You might discover a local phenomenon (Tai Chi in the park, anyone?) or a hidden studio only advertised by word of mouth.

tai chi in the park 4 tips for staying fit while traveling

Find out what fitness options there are in the parks near you.

If you happen to live in a big city, check the expat websites as well. Next up, visit several studios and gyms and get a feel for things. Ask if you can take a free or discounted trial class. If your city’s fitness culture follows the (sometimes pricey) membership fee structure, don’t feel pressured into signing up right away. Make some notes and move on to the next studio. Try checking your notes with your most active coworker (ideally a local) and go with the option that fits your budget and personality the best.

Also, be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. In New York, I normally took the same ballet classes from the same two or three teachers. Sure, it was comfortable and easy and they taught incredibly well, but being in Shanghai encouraged me to branch out a bit. I found a dance studio tucked away in a small apartment complex, in a twentieth floor apartment covered in jungle plants. The receptionist found a class for me that was only slightly above my level and taught mostly in Chinese, but was taught by a former Trockadero dancer (a troupe of veritable Men In Tights…and pointe shoes). I decided to give it a try. I was the only foreigner in the class, but the other students were incredibly friendly and helped to explain the rapid-fire instructions.

I stayed after class and watched the advanced students glide fluidly on and off the hard cardboard cases of their shoes, and chatted with another Chinese student as we tried out some new stretching equipment. This warmer approach to ballet is something I would have been hard pressed to find in a New York studio. And while I explored the dance scene in Shanghai, my fellow expats investigated other avenues: running routes hidden along creeks, boot camp training cults, and sunrise calisthenics in free park gyms. Start exploring the options your city has to offer, and you might find a new fitness obsession.


2. Your city is your gym

grocery walk 4 tips for staying fit while traveling

Try walking home with your heavy groceries instead of hopping on the subway
(Photo credit: Maral Sassouni)

For those on a budget (and who isn’t?), consider the gratis workout equipment attached to the bottom of your legs. Being from the American Northeast, I have often eschewed cars and taxis for walking. After moving to New York, I found a new appreciation for powering my way through the city at a rapid clip, and rarely found myself turning to a treadmill for a good workout. This trend continued in Shanghai, where I would walk myself from landmark to food stall to waterfront path all in an afternoon off. You’d be surprised how much leg work your city can offer you!

Start taking walks on your days off – walk around your home and work neighborhoods and get a feel for local life (hint: this is often the best way to discover the secrets of your city). Pick a new neighborhood every weekend and take a mapless walking tour. If you’re an afternoon and night teacher (as those who teach adults are bound to be), you can get out in the morning when the streets come to life with markets, vendors, and locals playing games on the sidewalks.

You can also consider shortening your subway or bus ride on either end and walking the rest. If you live in a cold region, quicken your pace and you’ll soon find yourself toasty and arriving at your destination quicker and with calories burned.

Don’t forget about a wonderfully free and oft-available option: the stairs. While your fellow city dwellers find themselves content to park themselves on the escalator, you can sail past them up the subway or office building stairs, causing some potentially envious stares and carving out some killer calves and glutes on the way. Running to catch that bus will never be easier.


3. Build a tech-fueled gym anywhere you are

Working out at home no longer means torturous devices ordered off infomercials at 3 am, or dusty Richard Simmons VHS tapes (No? Was that just my house?). The internet abounds with brilliant fitness resources that can be channeled through your computer or smartphone. This means we’re no longer tied to expensive gym memberships to keep ourselves in shape.

Are you into yoga (or would like to be)? Download Yoga to the People’s free podcasts from their website or iTunes and stretch out into Warrior 1 without hitting anyone around you.

ballet stretch 4 tips for staying fit while traveling

Think you can’t do this? Surprise yourself.
(Photo credit: Robert Bejil)

Miss the circuit training class at your local gym? Check out the wildly popular and rampantly copied 7 Minute Workout app for quick morning training before classes.

For a mood-boosting and high energy option, try searching You Tube for tutorials on mastering the dance moves to any number of music videos. Fellow Millenials, Darrin’s Dance Grooves, has been digitized; let’s rejoice and work out like it’s 1999.

For my beloved luddites, you can go the route my roommates took and order some weights and a pull up bar (to install on your bedroom door frame) online, or even a TRX kit, which requires a small set of straps and your own body weight, and go to town on some muscle sculpting.

For teachers on the move or on vacation, keeping fit doesn’t have to end when you strap on your backpack. I learned some basic yoga for traveling or small spaces from Tara Stiles and it’s been a godsend for quick morning workouts or for long plane or train rides, banishing the tension of a long week.


4. Sweat loves company

sweat loves company 4 trips for staying fit while traveling

When bailing on your workout means bailing on your friend, you’re less likely to skip it. (Photo credit: David Mark)

Staying fit in the midst of adjusting, teaching, and exploring can be difficult. Luckily, you’re not the only one doing it. Most likely, there are expats or locals just like you who crave that energized feeling at the end of a run, or the accomplished high-five after mastering a dance routine. And it’s much easier to get out of bed or get to the gym when you’ve got a buddy waiting for you.

Look online or in your community for groups who work out together (they’re more common than you think). is a great place to check out. If nothing exists yet, blaze your own trail! Invite coworkers and neighbors to join you for a class, a park-side set of jumping jacks, or a bike ride around a new neighborhood. You’d be surprised how many people would be jazzed to jump in on an already planned activity, but may be too shy to initiate it themselves. Inviting your local friends or coworkers to try your favorite workout from home is a great way to share your culture, and they might have something interesting to share themselves.

Missing home? Consider a Skype or Google hangouts workout group with your friends from home. You can stream the same video or podcast and cheer each other on during the difficult parts.

In short, there are more ways than we realize to create a cheap, convenient, fun workout in your new life abroad. Whatever it is you love to do, there is a way to do it in your new life abroad. It just may require a few adjustments.

How important is fitness to you? What do you do to stay fit when traveling?

Lauren Ringdahl

Lauren Ringdahl

Lauren’s passion is education and intercultural learning. Originally from Massachusetts, she lived and taught in New York City for several years before doing her CELTA with Teaching House. She now teaches English to adults in Shanghai, China and writes about her experiences on her blog, An American in Shanghai. She lives for bike rides, ice cream, and learning languages.
Lauren Ringdahl


  1. Hi Lauren

    Great post. Resistance bands are my favoured way of keeping fit while I’m on the road. Cheap and more importantly they pack small and are extremely lightweight.

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