Movement is great for your brain and your stress levels. Here's why an active vacation beats a beach chair and a margarita every single time. Disclaimer: I did not actually go cycling in this outfit.
Remember back in grade school when your teacher clearly wasn't completely ready for the school year to begin? You'd get the assignment to write an essay about what you learned on your summer vacation. Well, you can think of this as my "What I learned on Summer Vacation" essay ... with a bit more of a fitness and wellness vibe than I had in the fifth grade.
On my summer vacation I traveled through Denmark, Belgium, and Holland (with brief dips into Sweden and Germany) on a bicycle and on foot. As you probably know, I have always been a believer in making vacations active affairs (for fun and fitness) but cycling from town to town was a bit of a new adventure. An adventure I highly recommend!
Now that I've been home for a couple of weeks, I've had a chance to reflect on the trip. I'm ready to share what I experienced and contemplated during my cycling vacation.
1. Safe cycling is more fun
As a cyclist, if you're constantly afraid of getting hit by a car (or even just getting run off the road by drivers whose cars are too big for their own good), you're not going to have all that much fun. The good people of Europe (specifically Denmark, Holland, and Belgium) seem to have that sorted out.
We North Americans could really take a lesson on the importance of bike safety from the Scandanavians. Not only are the bike lanes significantly wider in those countries than they are in Canada and the USA, but much of the time there's an entirely separate roadway specifically for bikes. A roadway that even has its own numbering and navigation system. Check out the Cycle Across Netherlands trip planner website for a great example of how easy it is to plan your trip.
In Europe, cycling seems to play in important role in keeping our seniors healthy. I have never seen so many spryly cycling and self-sufficient septuagenarians in my life. It was both depressing and inspiring at the same time. My newly minted vision for my retirement years is to be happily pedaling along a country path with a smörgåsbord in my bike's basket and a happy pupper in the chariot I'm pulling along behind me.
But the good news is that we don't all have to move to Copenhagen to get this outcome. In my article, The Benefits of Biking to Work, I dove into some research in the British Medical Journal that measured the incidents of fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular disease, cancer, and any causes of death (including getting in an accident) among the cyclist participants over five years. At the end of that five years, the study's authors wrote that “Cycle commuters had a 52 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 40 percent lower risk of dying from cancer. They also had a 46 percent lower risk of developing heart disease and a 45 percent lower risk of developing cancer at all.”
If you don't feel safe riding a bicycle in your neighbourhood, walking is a perfectly viable option. So is writing a letter to your city council to encourage them to add more bike lanes in your city. Or you can follow my lead and simply choose your cycling route carefully to avoid traffic. Always—and I do mean always—assume that no one knows that you are on the road. Remember that your safety is your responsibility. This philosophy has made me a safe cyclist for many years even while living in major cities like Toronto and Vancouver.
2. Eating satisfying meals is enough
Most days on our cycling adventure we pedaled the bikes for at least four hours. Some days it was more like six or seven hours. On the first day, we made sure that we had a water bottle and a snack handy at all times. But quite honestly, aside from one ambitious day when we decided to push ourselves all the way from Gouda to Amsterdam without stopping for lunch, we didn't touch our snacks and only had a few sips from the water bottle.
We've been told so many times by the sports nutrition industry (and by that I mean companies like Gatorade and Powerbar) that we need to stay fueled at all times. If we don't, we'll hit that dreaded wall. I'm an experienced athlete, and so is my Boston-Marathon-running partner. But we had it in our heads that we would need to be chomping down on a banana at regular intervals during our adventure to keep ourselves going. That just isn't so.
Sure, if we'd been racing or on more grueling terrain (Holland, in particular, is pretty darn flat) we may have needed some extra fuel. But as it was, a good breakfast and a normal lunch were all we needed. The occasional mid-morning coffee and pastry in some picturesque Swedish ferry terminal didn't hurt either.
My point is that we tend to overestimate how much energy we burn when we exercise. If you're actively trying to lose body fat or maintain a healthy body composition, this can get you in trouble. Unless we're engaged in some seriously strenuous and lengthy exercise routines, we really don't need to worry about replacing those lost calories. I am not saying you should go hungry, but drinking to thirst and eating to hunger is just fine for the majority of our lives.
See also: How to Stay Hydrated During Exercise
3. Vacation relaxation is a myth
The majority of us have many daily responsibilities. Over time, they add up to what we call stress. That stress makes us want to run away and hide. Fair enough! That's why we have vacation time. But does lying on a beach with a sugary beverage in your hand really give you the mental break you need?
Perhaps for a day or two it does. But if we study the great minds of history, we learn that being active is actually the tried and true way to solve issues that weigh us down.
Great artists such as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Dickens were known for hitting the bricks to unwind and spark their creativity. Other great minds who used movement as a way to deal with their work pressures include Albert Einstein, Rene Descartes, Sigmund Freud. More recently, Steve Jobs. Jobs was known to take daily walks as part of his creative process and stress relief.
So next time you book a holiday getaway don't get hung up on the idea of complete relaxation at some all-inclusive resort. Toodling through the countryside on a bike, while stopping to visit with sheep, admire the countryside, and pop into the occasional five-hundred-year-old world heritage site left me both relaxed and energized.
The point of a vacation is to get away from the high-demand situations that we find ourselves in each day. Eliminating (or at least limiting) our ability to check our email, answer our phones, and look at social media, allows us to not only focus on the here and now but also think clearly about our future. When I was riding through the serene Dutch countryside, the last thing on my mind was who might have emailed me or what [insert Instagram infuencer] just posted.
Movement and exercise affect the brain, so we know that the cognitive benefits are nearly as impressive as the physical benefits. Remember, our brains and bodies don’t operate in isolation, independent of each other. What you do with your body benefits or harms your mental faculties as much as it adds or subtracts from the girth of your thighs.
So, when your next vacation is approaching I would encourage you to ask yourself, do you want to come back feeling stimulated and energetic, with a brain full of great ideas and solutions? Or do you want to come back feeling like you need a vacation to recover from your vacation? The choice is yours. Being active is always an option if you are open to it.
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