You may not feel bad about coming home from vacation with a few extra pounds – if those pounds mean the weight from fabulous souvenirs you found in faraway places.

But if those pounds are the type that make you regret all that eating and drinking, or the kind that make your slacks impossible to button, those are pounds of a different sort.

You may already be fighting some extra pounds that come with midlife, but you don’t want to be fighting another battle – the pounds that come from vacation.

It’s a common phenomenon among travelers: As your vacation progresses, so does your waistline. You come home, gather up your nerve to step on the scale, then bite your lip and shake your head, wondering if it was all worth that weight gain and vowing not to do it again.

Until next time.

Vacations offer us that much-needed and much-deserved break from all the pressures of everyday life; but unfortunately with that, we often get away from our sensible health habits.

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(Hey, I’m on vacation! Sound familiar?) Way too often that free spirit lets loose on one too many fancy cocktails or gooey desserts.

One of the beautiful bridges over the Douro River in Portugal

One of the beautiful bridges over the Douro River in Portugal (Credit: Sheryl Kraft)

On a recent Viking River Cruise through the gorgeous and scenic Douro Valley of Portugal, I was faced with the challenge of keeping myself healthy, or at least as close to healthy as I could. It’s pretty easy to eat healthy and exercise regularly when I’m home, but being away on vacation can mess up all good intentions.

And as midlife descends, it usually takes more effort and dedication to stay on top of our health.

But rather than see vacation time as a dilemma, you can view it as an opportunity. Vacation can be the perfect time to fine-tune your health habits. You’re relaxed, sleeping well, and usually on the move, exploring new territory. You can keep your wits about you, and even come home with no regrets – with a little knowledge and advance planning.

You can stay fit on a river cruise!

1) Don’t sit at the airport

Since you need to get to the airport up to three hours before most flights, you’ll be spending a lot of time there. And since you’ll be sitting on a plane for untold hours, why sit more? Take the opportunity to sneak in some exercise. Walk up and down the long corridors, find a set of stairs to climb, or even take a power walk or jog (don’t worry about getting funny looks; people will just assume you’re late for your flight!). Seize any opportunity to move – you’ll have limited opportunity once on the plane.

2) Be mindful of your food choices

Viking’s chef and kitchen staff are busy cooking up wonderful and varied meals, ranging from Beef Wellington to sautéed scallops. And, because of the questionnaire the cruise line sends ahead of time, you’re able to list any dietary restrictions – the wait staff was always very accommodating on my cruise when I made my usual requests like “no extra salt” or “dressing on the side.”

Additionally, the menu changes each day and other options are always available, like poached salmon, Caesar salad and grilled chicken breast. You can make healthy choices – they are there – and also make your meal healthier by asking for light dressing (or dressing on the side), forgoing the bread and butter offered at every meal and asking for vegetables to be steamed and not sautéed. It also helps to drink a glass of water before you start eating – this helps quell hunger and fill an empty stomach.

The same rules apply to the buffet at breakfast, piled high with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and potatoes. Rather than taking it all, choose one thing you can’t be without, and eat it sparingly – often the first few bites are the most satisfying, anyhow. (And don’t ignore the fact that there is always fresh fruit on the buffet.) Then, order off the menu – which is an option – where you can get healthier choices like poached eggs, oatmeal or yogurt parfait. Make sure to always include some protein, which will keep you fuller for longer.

3) Be prepared with (your own) food

Every morning, each stateroom receives a beautiful and bountiful tray of assorted fresh fruit. And there’s a free-standing coffee station on the boat, stocked with sweet treats for snacking.

Stay fit on a river cruise

Fresh, fragrant and beautifully arranged fruit plate that greeted us each morning (Credit: Sheryl Kraft)

However, if you’d rather stay away from the cookies, but don’t want to get hit with hunger pangs in between meals or when you’re traveling to and from the wonderful off-shore excursions, grab a piece of fruit instead.

Or, when you pack your suitcase for your trip, throw in some healthy snacks to bring along. That could include protein bars, small zip-top bags filled with nuts and dried fruits. My motto is “never go hungry.” If you do, you’ll make unhealthy choices at vending machines or restaurants when you go ashore.

4) Work out – even if there’s no gym

It’s all too easy to skip a workout when there’s no gym onboard, and space doesn’t usually allow for a gym on riverboats. But now more than ever, it’s easy to take your workout with you wherever you go (sorry, no excuses!). A jump rope and a resistance band take up little to no space in your luggage; you can take them out on the upper deck (where there’s an astro turf surface to make walking easy) and have a good and energetic workout.

There are other things you can do as well. For instance, you can easily use your own body weight as resistance to give you a fabulous total-body workout by doing push-ups or dips against the rails of the boat (or on the floor), squats, lunges, leg lifts and even crunches and planks for your abs.

One morning, I laid a large towel down on the deck and indulged in a 30-minute workout outside in the crisp morning air, inspired by the breathtaking and lush scenery along the sides of the majestic Douro River.

Sheryl holding a pose for abdominal strength on deck (Credit: Alan Kraft)

Sheryl holding a pose for abdominal strength on deck of the Viking Osfrid (Credit: Alan Kraft)

Sheryl Kraft doing planks on the deck

Sheryl works to stay fit on a river cruise by doing planks on the deck of the Viking Osfrid (Credit: Alan Kraft)

Don’t forget too that there are always opportunities to walk laps on the top deck of the boat, or on the many off-river excursions through ancient (and sometimes hilly) villages you’ll visit throughout your trip. Rather than shy away from the sometimes-tougher walks, look at them as opportunities to stay in shape.

5) Be mindful of the alcohol

Many of us drink more than we normally do when we’re on vacation. (I’m not making any judgments here!) But those “liquid calories” can add up fast – especially when you’re imbibing a fancy specialty drink, which often contains mixers like fruit juice, cream or another sugar or fat-laden ingredient.

You might know the drill: You have a glass of wine (or two) at the bar before dinner, wine with dinner (Viking offers unlimited house wines at dinner) and an after-dinner drink (or two). An article on cites a 2012 study that found the average American adult consumes 100 calories a day from beer, wine or other alcoholic beverages, and close to 20% of men and six% of women consume more than 300 calories a day from alcohol.

Some quick facts: A 12-ounce glass of beer has about 150 calories; a 1.5 ounce shot of gin, whiskey, tequila or vodka has about 100 calories; there are about 125 calories in a 5-ounce glass of red wine.

And watch out for tonic water – it’s not the same as sparkling water and contains a lot of calories and sugar. Since drinking loosens inhibitions, the more you drink, the more likely it can be that you’ll order another… as well as snack on “bar food” which is often unhealthy.

Best advice? Be mindful.

Before you even begin (and get too loosey-goosey), remind yourself to pay attention; you may even want to set a specific limit on the number of drinks you have in advance (and it doesn’t hurt to tell your traveling companion to make sure you follow your own orders). Another helpful tip is to alternate your drinks with a full glass of water (this will not only give you something else to sip on, but will keep you from dehydration and a possible hangover the next day). Or, order drinks that have less calories, like a wine spritzer (which cuts the calories and quantity of wine with seltzer or club soda), lite beer or a low-calorie version of a Cosmopolitan (raspberry-infused vodka with club soda and a splash of lime and cranberry juice).

Credit: Pixabay

Take note

  • Even though you want to stay fit on a river cruise, don’t feel that you have to totally deprive yourself of tempting treats; after all, you’ll want to experience new and unknown culinary surprises. To fully enjoy, just be mindful of your portions.
  • Be realistic about your fitness level. Now is not the time to begin a new fitness program. But if you’re already in shape, a river cruise can offer many hidden opportunities to stay that way.
  • Make sure to bring along comfortable walking shoes or sneakers; these will also serve you well for walking on the deck of the boat.


The author was a guest on one of Viking River Cruises’ Portugal’s River of Gold cruises.

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Jumping Jacks aboard the Viking Osfrid in the Douro Valley of Portugal (Credit: Alan Kraft)

The author doing Jumping Jacks aboard the Viking Osfrid in the Douro Valley of Portugal as she tries to stay fit on a river cruise (Credit: Alan Kraft)