This summer the Berkeley, Calif., travel company Backroads will send about 100 cycling enthusiasts on a 260-mile trek through southern Oregon's wilderness. Over five days, they'll slowly climb high-desert mountains for a cumulative elevation gain of 19,000 feet.
The participants aren't extreme or professional athletes; this is a vacation itinerary for the moderately to vigorously active, and the mileage and elevation gain can be adjusted for those who want a less ambitious trip. They'll pay more than $2,000 for the experience, meals and lodging included.
It may not sound like the ideal way to enjoy a hard-earned break from the office, but Rich Snodsmith, sales and guest services manager for Backroads, says that several different types of people—with a wide range of fitness and ability—seek out active vacations like this one because of the long-term challenge involved.
"They book a trip in September for March," he says, "and it becomes a goal for them to get in shape."
That stick-and-carrot strategy of building on and improving one's fitness not only provides regular motivation for staying active, it also prevents the diet-and-exercise backsliding that often happens when a vacation consists of lounging at the beach and dining on hotel, restaurant and airport food.
In other words, the trick to using vacation time to get in shape is in planning a trip that requires an already-established level of fitness.
Remarkably, preparing for a cycling trip like the one in Oregon doesn't require months of non-stop training. Last year, for example, Snodsmith says the participants included a young producer from Hollywood who was in shape but hadn't done a lot of riding, a Michigan couple who were "gym fit" and a couple from California who biked often.
Carl Foster, director of the human performance laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, says that it's quite easy to prepare for excursions of this intensity (the added benefit, of course, is that preparing for a specific activity over several months can help improve cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength and body composition). Participants who meet the American College of Sport Medicine's recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity five days of the week should be able to adapt to anything, he says.
The key is to practice the activity you'll be doing on vacation. While lifting weights will help strengthen the upper body in advance of a kayaking trip, Foster says it's important to complete a few trial runs in a boat to "get the muscles set to fire in a certain way." This applies to other activities with very specific motions, including cycling, backpacking and hiking.
And then there are variables like terrain, altitude, elevation gain and mileage. If your trip covers rugged, steep terrain, mimicking those same conditions in advance will help the body prepare.
Just remember, some active vacations require more time for training than others. Though 30 minutes of daily moderate to vigorous exercise is a good benchmark, those attempting to spend several hours exercising each day during the vacation should work up to such a goal.
To prepare for a six-hour hike, for instance, Foster recommends consecutively increasing the mileage or duration prior to the trip. The first hike might be one hour, a second the following week would be two hours and so on. Even getting to 50 of the load—three hours, in this case—would provide an excellent foundation.
Enjoying the benefits
While exercise performed over the course of an active vacation may temporarily boost fitness, the effects are minimal compared to the benefits of regular and long-term exercise.
For example, a sedentary person who becomes a jogger, Foster explains, will improve his or her oxygen uptake by 20 percent over six months. But this metric is slow to change and won't shift after four days of hard exertion alone.
Trent Hargens, an associate coordinator of clinical exercise physiology at Ball State University, says the benefits of long-term exercise are well known. They include helping the body control blood pressure and blood sugar, which mitigates heart-disease risk factors.
In light of those invaluable benefits (and the pride that accompanies completing an arduous physical challenge), an active vacation can become an ideal way to spend your time off.
Though the participants who finished the Oregon cycling trip may have returned with sore legs, they also had success stories.
"For a lot of them," says Snodsmith, "their rides were personal bests."