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How to stay healthy on a road trip

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 7/07/2015 Kirstin Fawcett

Drop the top and feel the wind in your hair – just don't throw caution to the wind.: A couple rides in a convertible. © (Getty Images) A couple rides in a convertible. So you've heard the call of the open road – and you've finally decided to answer. Don't feel too guilty about ditching the office water cooler for Route 66; studies indicate that taking some much-needed vacation time might reduce your risk for heart disease, anxiety and depression. However, between the hot sun, cramped car seats and an endless number of roadside burger shacks, it's hard to feel – and stay – in shape while driving from Point A to Point B.

Here are a few tips to help you take a vacation from work – not from your health – while on a road trip.

1. Find Allies

Ahh, the open road. The wind in your hair during the day. A cool beer in your hand at night. A heaping plate of pulled pork at the 24-hour diner. And somewhere, drifting through your subconscious, a faint memory of the gym.

It's easy to forego self-care in favor of spontaneity and convenience while on a road trip. If you really want to stay healthy, you shouldn't do it by yourself, says Alexis Gross, an integrative health and lifestyle coach who practices in Nassau, Bahamas.

"Enlist support first," Gross advises. "If you really want to make something doable, it's really hard when there are other people saying, 'Oh, just eat that burger. Whatever, just get fries; I'm getting fries.' You can't control what other people do, but you can talk to your friends ahead of time."

Let your road trip companions know you want to block out an hour a day to exercise, or that you want to limit fast-foot pit stops. Don't rely on willpower alone to get you through your trip.

2. Go in With a Game Plan

© Artiga Photo/Corbis Gross recommends doing your homework before you hit the road. Locate gyms or activity centers with classes near your hotel. Use social media to crowdsource for healthy restaurant suggestions once you arrive at your destination. Look into whether there are any cities with grocery stores adjacent to your main highway. This way, you'll have fewer excuses once you're in the car.

3. Choose the Lesser Evil

Barbecue pits. Drive-thru burger joints. Roadside taquerias. Gas station buffets. Diners, diners, diners. It's hard to maintain healthy eating habits while on the road. But with a little planning and a lot of willpower, you can keep your energy from crashing – and your physique from expanding, says Natalie Taggart, a certified holistic health coach based in the District of Columbia.

Taggart recommends stopping at grocery stores and loading a cooler with healthy meal options. Make sandwiches with whole-grain bread and lean proteins. Purchase fiber-filled snacks such as cut veggies and fruits so you'll stay full longer. But if you're stuck miles from the nearest town, surrounded by nothing but gas stations and McDonald's, there are healthy – well, healthy-ish – options.

At the gas station, steer clear of hot buffets. Instead, opt for protein-rich choices such as hard-boiled eggs, skim milk cheese sticks, water-packed tuna and yogurt. Roasted nuts, beef jerky, sunflower seeds and fruit are also good for on-the-go noshing.

If a drive-thru's most convenient, choose a chicken salad, grilled, not crispy, or get a burger sans bun. If possible, order sides like apple slices instead of fries.

However, a road trip's a road trip – and it's important to not deprive yourself, Taggart says.

"If you're driving through the south and you want to pull over for barbecue, pull over for barbecue," Taggart says. "But make sure you're balancing out your food choices for the rest of the day." Pick and savor one or two barbecue side dishes you really love – say, macaroni and cheese – instead of ordering five. Later on in the day, squeeze in an extra walk or eat a lighter dinner.

"You're on vacation, and you want to experience it fully," Taggart says. "Make healthy choices about 80 percent of the time, so the remaining 20 percent of the time you can enjoy yourself." 

4. Get Moving 

© Joe Raedle/Getty Images In case you haven't heard, "sitting is the new smoking." A recent study published in the online journal BMJ Openfound that sitting for more than three hours a day could shave two years off an individual's life span. Even if you've swapped your seated desk at work for a standing one, you're offsetting your good intentions by spending all day sitting in a car during your vacation.

If you're driving a long distance, health experts recommend stopping at least every two hours for a bathroom break. Take a walk around the rest stop. Squeeze in a few simple curbside stretches. And if you're really committed to sticking to your usual health regime, find the time for daily exercise.

If you're near a wilderness trail – or a gym chain that provides visitors with daylong passes – it's a cinch to go for a run or lift some weights. No access to a gym or a nearby park? No problem, says Jenn Culver Malecha, a San Diego, California-based certified personal trainer and health coach. You just have to get a little creative. For instance, YouTube has yoga, aerobics and high-intensity interval training video workouts, which can be streamed from a cell phone in a hotel room. Exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, plank positions and squats can be performed anywhere, anytime – and luggage can be used in lieu of dumbells to add extra resistance. Or you can jog up and down your hotel's stairwell.

Less motivated to get your body moving while on the road? Gross likes to find unusual classes or activities she's never tried before – an African dance class, a new school of yoga – when she's traveling in a new place. This way, exercising on vacation seems more like an adventure and less like an obligation. 

5. Stay Hydrated

© Corbis A recent study published in the journal Physiology and Behaviorfound that not drinking – water, that is – while driving may be just as dangerous as hitting the road after imbibing alcohol. Researchers observed that drivers with mild dehydration made just as many errors behind the wheel – lane drifting, late braking – as someone driving with a blood alcohol concentration at or above 0.08 percent. Short explanation? Your brain isn't at its best when you're dehydrated. And between salty snacks, a scorching sun and a sea of never-ending traffic, it's easy to get parched – or forget to drink water altogether – while on a road trip.

Malecha suggests buying a water cooler and filling it with bottled water. Lay off caffeinated beverages such as coffee or soda, or try to reduce your intake. And snack on fruit and vegetables, which contain water, instead of sodium-laden chips or pretzels.

Can't function without caffeine? "My general recommendation is that any time you buy a [caffeinated] beverage, always buy a water with it," Malecha says. "Matching these beverages will help you stay hydrated on the road." 

6. Protect Your Skin

© Alix Minde/PhotoAlto/Corbis You're not lying on a beach, but don't skimp on the sunscreen. A recent study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that nearly 53 percent of skin cancers in the U.S. occur on the left side of the body – the side that's bathed in sunlight while you're sitting in the driver's seat.

Don't the car windows protect you from sun exposure? Not quite. Windshields are partially treated to filter out ultraviolet radiation, but side and rear windows don't offer much of a barrier. Transparent window film, which is available for purchase at most home improvement or auto stores, screens out nearly 100 percent of UVB and UVA rays. However, the film protects you only when the windows are rolled up – meaning you should be wearing some sunscreen if you want a little breeze.

Choose a product that's at least SPF 30, Taggart advises, and make sure you apply it to your neck, head and arms – areas of the body that the American Academy of Dermatology study found were particularly vulnerable to skin cancer. 

7. Remember to Sleep 

© VOISIN/PHANIE/REX Between stiff hotel beds, late nights and early mornings, it's easy to lose sleep while on the road. But no matter how tempting it might be to stay out late at a roadside bar or rise early to beat rush hour traffic, it's wisest to catch a few extra hours of shut-eye instead. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving accounted for 2.5 percent of fatal car crashes – and 2 percent of crashes that resulted in injury – between 2005 and 2009. And the National Sleep Foundation's Sleep in America poll found that 60 percent of Americans have driven while feeling sleepy, and 37 percent admit to falling asleep at the wheel in the past year.

Even though you're on vacation, try to get at least seven to nine hours of sleep a night, which the NSF recommends for all adults. Taggart suggests bringing your own pillow and soothing essential oils like lavender to make foreign hotel rooms feel more like home. Still not sleeping as often – or as well – as you'd like? Having a hard time adjusting to a new time zone? Make sure to take a nap in the car's backseat before it's your turn to drive. 

8. Practice Mindfulness

© Radius Images/Corbis It's easy to joke about road rage. But it's a real – and occasionally fatal – phenomenon. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety analyzed more than 10,000 police reports and newspaper stories, and found that incidents of road rage contributed to 218 deaths and 12,610 injuries between 1990 and 1996.

To avoid spiraling into a fit of rage that might contribute to aggressive driving, Gross recommends practicing mindfulness, which involves staying focused on the present moment.

"Pay attention to [the feeling of] your foot against the break," Gross says. "Pay attention to the little shake in your car, and feel it vibrating through your seat. Become aware of everything that's going on around you. When you concentrate on that specific moment, you can't be distracted by anything else."

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