Things I wish I’d known: exercising on the road

Trying to figure out how to swim in a pool under a waterfall, against strong currents, in the rain. Not optimal.

Tourist guides like the Lonely Planet are ok for certain things, like telling you what other tourists find valuable in a city you know nothing about.  There are a lot of things I wish I’d known before starting out on this six-month trip – stuff that tourist guides don’t include, but are important to me and how I travel.  For example, India, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos all have wall sockets that fit both American flat two-prong plugs as well as European round two-prong plugs.  Indian wall sockets usually have holes for these, and also sometimes they have British-style three-prong plugs.  Before landing, I couldn’t find any information on whether I was going to be able to charge my iPhone with a standard USB plug.  So there.  If you were wondering.  

Exercise, too, is another thing I found scant information on.  Would I be able to continue to work out while traveling?  We have friends, Ben and Zara, who went around the world for six months just before us.  They advised us to bring a jump rope, since gyms are few and far between, and many places are not runner-friendly, particularly cities. 

But I needn’t have worried.  I wanted to provide a resource for people who are considering a six-month (or longer) trip.  Some of these notes are specific to Southeast Asia; the last one, bodyweight exercises, can be done anywhere, and you can get in a great workout wherever you want to go.  

Hotel gyms.  Sometimes hotels advertise that they have gyms.  These are usually one or two cardio machines (a cross-trainer and, if you’re lucky, and a treadmill that is extremely loud and barely works), a pull-down machine, and a few dumbbells.  I’d say don’t rely on these for working out.  

Hotel Pools.  Hotels often advertise that they have pools, too.  This is a hit-or-miss proposition.  The pools we’ve seen have not been used much, and are sometimes truly exquisite.  Others are completely neglected.  They’re almost all less than 20 meters long, so I’d say don’t rely on getting good laps in.  

Public pools. Some cities run public pools; we’ve found these to be pretty good for lap swimming.  As with public pools anywhere, you can expect that kids playtime makes the water a bit salty.  

The Ocean.  The ocean can be a good option for swimming, as long as you’re not scared of critters or drowning (and, occasionally, rubbish and pollution).  Lifeguards are unknown on Southeast Asian beaches.  In Cambodia, the otherwise crystal water in Koh Rong was full of tiny, harmless jellyfish, as well as bottles, flip flops and assorted plastic bags washing in from offshore.  I’m excited to see what Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Fiji have to offer.  

Private gyms.  Many cities have gyms that sell day passes; some are $.50, some are $2.  You can expect cardio machines, weight machines, and some free weights; generally, the machines are 20-30 years old, and the weights might be older, but they’re weights and they don’t change much anyway.  The Angkor Muscle Gym in Siem Reap was absolutely brilliant – it was as much a community party as a gym.  The Monurum gym in the middle of Battambang serves beer (which more gyms in the West should do).  I’m in Savannkhet, Laos, right now, and the Max Fitness gym around the corner from me has all-new equipment, which, after two months of lifting rusted metal, feels kind of weird to use.   

Martial arts.  Many cities have a martial arts gym, and they will always have beginner classes.  One of the toughest hours we’ve spent was at the Selapak Khmer martial arts Gym in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; it was incredible, but also showed me how far I am from fighting fit.  I’m looking forward to Muay Lao in Laos, Muay Thai in Thailand, and whatever other classes we can find.  Another benefit: this is a remarkable way to meet locals and expats living in a city, who can give you advice and help if you need it.  

Public exercise spaces.  We were introduced to these in Vietnam.  Vietnamese cities, inspired by Uncle Ho’s love of exercise, have erected outdoor exercise equipment for anyone to use.  This might include pull-up bars, things that resemble cross-country ski equipment, twisty things that shatter your obliques, stationary bicycles, raised platforms, and dip bars which double as leg lift bars – it is all remarkably versatile, and you can get a great workout in an hour.  

Public aerobics classes.  Oh man, this is fun.  Cities in Vietnam and Cambodia have public aerobics classes that you can join for a dollar or so; they set up speakers, and you and 50 other people follow an instructor for as long as you want.  We’ve done this in Phnom Penh, at dusk in the Olympic Stadium, and Kratie, Cambodia, on the riverside, which the local Red Cross ran.  If you’re not too graceful, like me, the locals also get a good laugh at watching you flail around, which does wonders in breaking down barriers.  

Body weight exercises in your room.  You can easily get an incredible workout in your hotel room if you have enough space to do jumping jacks, pushups, and planks; all you need is an interval timer on your phone, or an old-school Timex Ironman Triathlon watch (I have the 1993 model; it’s the best $22 I’ve spent this year).  For me, a room workout might be:

  • Two minutes of jumping jacks
  • Thirty second rest
  • Two minutes of squats
  • Thirty second rest
  • Two minutes of lunges
  • Thirty second rest
  • Two minutes of planks
  • Thirty second rest
  • Two minutes of leg lifts (to target abs)
  • Thirty second rest
  • Two minutes of scissors (to target abs)
  • Thirty second rest
  • Two minutes of Russian Twists
  • Thirty second rest

Then, pushups: 

  • 100 pushups in four minutes
  • 100 close-grip pushups in four minutes
  • 100 wide-grip pushups in four minutes

The whole thing can take 30 minutes, or you can stretch it out (or do more).  I’ve been mostly doing bodyweight exercises for two months, and I keep getting comments from people asking how I keep fit (including from the waiter in this cafe, who keeps grabbing my triceps).  

I also found You Are Your Own Gym to be an extraordinary resource for ideas on different exercises.  In my mind, as long as I’m getting 1000 reps in, I’m getting a good workout, so if I end up doing curls with a backpack, or I can find a place to do 100 pull-ups, or rucksack rows, or step-ups on a chair…you get the idea.  Adjusting the above workout is easy; for example, 

  • 100 Jumping Jacks
  • 100 rucksack rows
  • 100 sit-ups
  • 100 pushups
  • 100 lunges
  • 100 backpack curls
  • 100 Liter Lifts (using bottles of water to target the shoulders)
  • 100 tricep dips 
  • 100 decline pushups
  • 100 squats

There.  I wish I’d had this before I left.  If you have any thoughts or questions, I’m always happy to answer them!  


  1. Great article! I’m working on a commercial for Men’s Health magazine to promote Jim Brickman’s book “Soothe” and you’re just the type of guy we need for our video shoot…Really wish you were in town brother! Enjoy the ride…


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