If you belong to a large gym network, there's usually just a nominal fee to work out at one of their other locations, and sometimes it's free. For frequent travelers, this can be a convenient way to exercise your body -- and your gym membership.
updated 1/30/2007 3:55:15 PM ET 2007-01-30T20:55:15

Travel and weight gain ... story of my life. The two seem inextricably linked and for a long time I thought it was absolutely impossible for me (or anyone) to travel without jettisoning my diet and my exercise program.

For years, I even avoided checking the scale, until one day about two years ago when, during my regular physical, my doctor forced me to look. I couldn't ignore the truth -- I was tipping the scale, literally, at nearly 290 pounds.

I had to do something about it. At the same time, I've always believed that part of being smart is admitting what you're dumb at, and this was a classic example. I knew the problem but not how to achieve the solution. I needed to diet and exercise, but I still needed to travel.

Slowly at first, then surely, I put together a team of nutritionists, exercise physiologists, doctors and physical trainers, and asked their advice. But I couldn't heed their advice in a vacuum -- they had to position their suggestions in the context of my travel schedule, which by most measurements is extreme since I log more than 400,000 miles a year. I'm away from home more than 300 days of 365.

My team and I constructed an approach, a regimen of diet and exercise whilst traveling. First, I had to be honest with myself; I was not going to abstain from my love of food. Second, I was not going to be moving full-time into a gym. This was all about multitasking, common sense and balance.

Toward that end, I dissected just about every component part of the travel and exercise process. And in doing so, I figured out how to lose the weight and stay in shape. In less than eight months, I lost 42 pounds. And I'm still on my way to losing my goal of 28 more. There were downs, and there were ups. There were depressing plateaus. And yes, there were days when I consciously cheated.

But in the end, the approach worked -- and it still works.

Let's start with food.

Airport Food
This isn't about healthy. It's about finding relatively healthier food on the way to the plane.

As airlines have cut back on serving food, airports are filling the void. And, more often than not, they are filling that void with calorie-laden comfort food. Something to perk travelers up. The problem is that when you're stressed and tired, you tend to pick what's more palatable, and that translates into two bad words in the world of diet: sweet and fatty.

Still, there are ways to cut down on those two words -- and on the airport calories.

If you're going to stop at a McDonald's, at least get a kid's meal containing Chicken McNuggets (six pieces), Apple Dippers with Low Fat Caramel Dip and an Apple Juice Box (6.75 fluid ounces) for a total of 440 calories and 16 grams of fat.

If you're going to pick up a Subway hero, beware the Tuna Deli, with 350 calories and 18 grams of fat, and the Chicken and Bacon sandwich that has 530 calories and 25 grams of fat. Try the roast beef Deli sandwich has only 220 calories and 4.5 grams of fat.

Hilton offers its Eat Right menu, which is a separate menu of healthy eating options. These Eat Right menus provide a complete breakdown for each item, in milligrams, of carbs, fat, sodium and protein, and they tell you the total amount of calories in each dish.
The good news about the fast food you find in airports is that many chain restaurants, from Starbucks to McDonald's, now have their nutritional information online. McDonald's has even announced plans to put nutritional information on its wrappings (although one could argue that receiving nutritional information after you've bought your item is a little late).

You've run the gauntlet through the airport, and you got through it without succumbing to Mr. Goodbar, or even that over-sauced turkey wrap. Now you've finally reached your gate, and with any luck, in a few minutes, you'll be on the plane and in your seat.

About that seat: Is it your imagination, or are airline seats getting smaller? Sorry, folks, but as small as the seats seem, as uncomfortable as it is to have your knees wrapped around your neck in coach, the truth is that the seats aren't smaller -- you've gotten bigger. I'm sad to report that the plane isn't the only wide-body rolling down the runway.

If you ever needed more incentive to lose weight on the road, consider this: In 1995, the FAA set the recommended average weight per adult passenger, which is used to calculate aircraft loads, at 180 pounds in the summer and 185 pounds in the winter. That's heavy enough, right? Not exactly. After a deadly crash of a commuter plane in Charlotte, in January 2003, investigators determined that the actual weight of those on board might have been a factor in the tragedy. As a result, the FAA ordered airlines to add 10 pounds to the assumed average weight of passengers when calculating aircraft loads.

Wedged into your seat, you now begin to fantasize about the onboard meal. You know when airlines cut back on food? Well, they now offer "snack boxes" in lieu of a real meal. OK, you'll take what you can get, and at least they'll cut back on the calories. Right?

Better look inside the box. The Center for Science in the Public Interest measured a snack offered by Southwest Airlines and found that those little crackers and cookies contain more than 25% of a day's calories for white flour, fat, sugar and salt. While you'd think the cheese and crackers might provide some protein, you only get 2 grams, no more than the six-packs of Oreo cookies. They also point out that the "fruit snack" is mostly sugar with a little grape and cherry juice mixed in for taste.

The point is to bring your own snacks. Or at least pick up some nuts in the airport before you fly. (See the slideshow for some specific recommendations).

At the Hotel
As I have learned, the real battleground for the traveler's diet is not in the air -- it's on the ground, once we land and check in to our hotel. Sad but true: Hotels and resorts are where all good diet and health intentions go to die. The culprit is a lethal combination of food, sleep deprivation and lack of exercise. When it comes to diet, exercise, and fitness on the road, we are indeed a nation in denial.

As soon as we arrive at a hotel, our self-control seems to evaporate. Whether it's a business trip or a vacation, we're operating at different schedules, in a different environment, exposed to different climates, cultures, foods. As a result, we pack on the pounds.

More often than not, we are eating out. In 1955 Americans spent 19 percent of their food dollar on food that was prepared outside the home. Today it's nearing 50 percent and climbing. Not only do we eat out more often, but invariably, when we eat out, the portions are larger. And we're cleaning our plates. You do the math.

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It all comes down to a definition of the word healthy, and how precisely you order the food. Certain hotels try to help. Hilton offers its Eat Right menu, which is a separate menu of healthy eating options. But in spite of all the well-intentioned attempts at healthy offerings, it's nevertheless absolutely necessary that you deconstruct your meal.

"Just because an item is starred as a 'healthy choice' means nothing," says Anthony Scotto, whose family owns and operates Fresco, one of my favorite restaurants in Manhattan. "You see the salmon or the swordfish on the menu and it's got that asterisk," he says. "And that's supposed to mean that they will cook it without butter or heavy sauces." The reality, he says, is often very different. "Back in the kitchen, there's one guy on the line and his only job is cooking fish. And he's cooking all of it the same way."

I see very few of the major hotel chains making any serious attempt to offer healthier meals. Some are making an effort, but it is still up to the health-conscious diner to pick and choose carefully, even among the supposedly healthful offerings. The bottom line: Eater beware. Even the most well-intentioned hotel menus can be traps. The next part, perhaps the hardest, is... exercise.

Exercise on the Road
This is, without a doubt, the killer part of the traveler's diet because it all depends on your own determination when you're already confronted with a killer travel schedule. This is where people fail the most.

Consider this: In the last decade, the number of U.S. hotels with fitness facilities has grown from 36 percent to 56 percent.

But simply having a great hotel gym doesn't mean you'll use it. The statistics are a little frightening. In almost every piece of research I've seen, travelers rate fitness centers as the most or second-most important amenity when traveling. In fact, an overwhelming number of travelers responded that they booked a hotel in large part if it had a fitness center and/or pool. But the actual utilization rate -- how many of the guests actually use the facilities -- is a disheartening six percent... or less.

Annette Lang, a terrific personal trainer in New York who continues to work directly with me on my diet and exercise program, devised a great workout plan for me, but it required me to be disciplined enough to use the gyms and follow her instructions. And it also accommodated for all those times when the hotel gym was either closed or not available. Where there was a gym, it involved 15 minutes of weight training, 45 minutes of level and 10 of elliptical training. I'd try to do this on the road at 7 p.m., so I could watch "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune." And that was my real secret to success: The exercise time flew by as I was entertained by very smart people followed by very stupid people.

What about hotels with no trainers and no fitness center? As my readers or viewers may know, I believe there are two kinds of airline bags: carry-on... and lost.

So the exercise program I use in my hotel room involves those carry-on bags, usually full of mail and magazines (and averaging about 20-25 pounds each). It also includes dresser drawers, chairs and closet doors, as well as the telephone directory and of course, the bed.

In general, if you do even a short workout at the beginning of the day, you'll feel better for it, and that might help you not overeat the rest of the day. And, hey, don't sabotage yourself by "forgetting" to pack sneakers or shorts.

Jet Lag, Sleep, and Weight
OK, please don't hate me... but I don't get jet lag. And to the best of my recollection, I have never been afflicted with it. But I feel your pain.

No matter how much you talk about diet, exercise, fitness, food and travel, the great imponderable has always been sleep. How much we need, how much we get, how it affects our performance, both physical and mental, and especially when we travel. Additional research indicates a direct link between sleep, or lack of it, and weight gain.

Scientists argue that jet lag is first and foremost a physical condition that is worsened by high altitudes, dry air or stress. Jet lag is merely a result of our biological clocks all being broken at the same time. So is it simply a matter of how much sleep you can get, and when you can get it? Not quite. It's really a matter of being... sleep deprived. One reason we become sleep deprived on airplanes is the flight is too short. Couple that with our sleep patterns on the ground, and you have a full-tilt recipe for jet lag.

One study concludes that those with jet lag don't just eat at irregular times, they eat larger-than-normal portions. The worst part is the link between sleep deprivation and weight gain: The brain may send out false signals of hunger. And therein lies a big problem among travelers -- combine a rigorous travel schedule and sleep deprivation, and there's a direct correlation with obesity.

People who are sleep-deprived get hungry. When we restrict sleep duration in healthy, lean, normal adults, we quickly observe two alterations. Leptin, the hormone that regulates appetite and promotes satiety, the feeling of fullness, decreases. (When leptin levels are high, you feel satiated. If you're feeling hungry, your leptin levels have dropped). That, coupled with increased levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, sends false signals to the brain that you're starving. Hunger increases even when your caloric intake has been more than sufficient.

In the end, it's not just about jet lag, or how well you adjust. It's really all about sleep deprivation and how that affects your ability to think clearly, and in particular, how it affects your brain's ability to allow you to register how hungry you are versus how hungry you feel. My advice for jet lag hunger pains? Water, and lots of it.

Peter Greenberg's best-selling book, The Traveler's Diet, is available to purchase online at


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