Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Healthier Vacations 101: how to REALLY get the biggest bang for your vacation buck

Heading home from a summer vacation can sometimes feel as dreadful as a trip to the dentist – worse, maybe (no offense, dentists!)… The kids are worn out and cranky from not enough sleep coupled with too much sugar. You are uncomfortable as you try to figure out how to gracefully unbutton your now-too-tight shorts as you sit on the plane or your car in a traffic jam, counting the hours until the whole fiasco is over. Mentally, you begin to critique your vacation: the hotel fell short in this way… the weather did not cooperate… your sunscreen didn’t hold up to its promises… the workouts you’d planned in the hotel gym never materialized…

Maybe you don’t have those negative tapes rolling through your head. Perhaps your vacation was everything you’d hoped it would be. Either way, many people don’t realize that the concept of mindfulness or purpose doesn’t just apply to work or church or working out, it can (and should) apply to vacations, too! Here are my five tips for creating a better vacation experience:

1)  Just because they offer it to you, you don’t HAVE to accept it
I find it so curious that most everyone readily accepts the free drinks and snacks while flying. Sure, for the arm and leg that most of us pay for airfare, it makes sense that you would want to get the biggest bang for your buck, but who is REALLY paying when you gobble down packets of peanuts and pretzels, slurp the sodas or “juices” loaded with tons of extra sugar? In regular old everyday-life, I rarely eat peanuts and pretzels, or drink anything except water, so why should I alter that simply because it’s being offered to me for free? The mindless grazing that is so easy to do when trapped in a car or airplane for several hours adds up to empty calories that often leave us hungrier than we’d be if we’d brought along a more nutrient-dense snack (like raw almonds or an apple) or ignored them altogether.

Hotel and resort buffets are another area where people tend to seek out the biggest boatload of freebies possible: plates piled high with made-to-order omelets, bacon and sausage, fried potatoes, pastries, and waffles are probably not the norm when dining at home, so why should they be a go-to during vacation (seriously, who eats a dozen strips of bacon at home???)? It may be difficult to allow yourself to take only a small sampling of these foods, or even pass them by completely, but by empowering yourself to be in control of your appetite and your dining plate in such a seductive environment can be a great accomplishment. Rather than pile up on the foods that are the most “tempting,” look instead for those that are the most nutrient-dense: fresh fruit (many breakfast buffets have whole apples, bananas, and oranges within easy reach); oats that can be topped with fresh fruit, nuts, and raisins (but SKIP the brown sugar!); and poached eggs often top my list for wise choices.

There are often enticing hospitality offerings of chocolates, warm chocolate chip cookies, or some other treat available at the end of the day. While some people might end their evenings at home in such a way, there’s no reason that this has to be a mandatory snack simply because it’s being offered. Skip it. It’s easy to stow a package of dried fruit (NO SUGAR ADDED!) or raw nuts in your suitcase or carry-on that can serve as a great nightcap in the event that your dinner has not satisfied you that evening.
2)  “Relaxing” does not have to be synonymous with sitting on your butt
Sure, the idea of whiling away the hours, day after day with no demands or deadlines is what makes vacation so attractive, but does this HAVE to accompany sitting in a lounge chair all day? Some of my favorite vacation spots include those with a walkable area – whether it is a quaint town, a scenic trail, or long stretches of beach – that beckon me to explore (and possibly shop!). By incorporating exploration into my daily vacation routine I am able to stay active without feeling as if it is something separate from my relaxation time.

3)  Do you really NEED three restaurant meals a day?
Outside a normal 9-to-5 routine, our appetites are usually different. During the workweek, boredom, stress, and habit dictate much of the rhythm affecting when we eat our meals, what time we take our mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack breaks, and how we arrange our menus. When vacationing, I’ve realized that I rarely get hungry between meals. Food is often in abundance, and opportunities to graze and indulge are everywhere. It is super-easy to fall into a mindless mode of eating in settings like this. By cutting back to two primary meals a day – breakfast and dinner – not only is my food budget cheaper, I have more time to enjoy my surroundings and get lost in the complete experience of my vacation, rather than spending time worrying about how to arrange activities that will neatly fit into “before lunch” and “after lunch” schedules, as well as stressing about how long I’ll be waiting to be seated at the next available table.

By stocking my hotel room with dried fruit (without extra sugar!), raw nuts, simple crackers (like one of my favorites, Wasa Light Rye Crispbread – the ingredients are whole grain rye flour and salt), raw nut butter, a couple of cans of sardines, and easy to store/eat fruit like apples, bananas, and clementines, a mid-afternoon snack is a nutritious AND convenient way to bypass the hassle and stress of cramming in one more official meal for the day.

4)  Breathing is highly underrated
A frenzied pace is to be expected if vacationing in NYC or a jumbo theme park (and these places can be really fun), but in other settings, do you really need to rush from one putt-putt course to another? Will the kids STILL have a good time if they don’t make it to the boardwalk carnival every day? Some of the most magical and relaxing experiences come from how people feel during the vacation. Are you angry and stressed as you rush to one performance or event after another, or are you taking time to savor the experience of your vacation. Are you connecting with one another? Are you pausing? Are you breathing?

Focused attention on your companions – whether children or adults – will contribute to a feeling that flavors the overall memory of your trip. Think about the special vacations of your past. Can you recount your complete itinerary? Most likely there are a few standout moments that involved a particular locale, but more often we recall how we felt during and after the vacation. A favorite memory that I have involves a vacation that my husband and I took with our then-teenaged children ten years ago. We specifically had the thought that it might be the last vacation that we took as that particular form of our family unit – before summer jobs and sports practices might take precedence over family time; before our kids ventured out into the great unknown of young adulthood and independence; before college and careers interrupted the rhythm of relating that we’d worked so hard to establish.

Sitting on the beach one afternoon I watched as my husband, son and two daughters walked into the clear, almost-blue-jello colored waves of the gulf coast of Florida sporting snorkel masks and goggles. My husband held hands with each of the kids at different times as they all attempted to steady themselves against an onslaught of gentle yet steady waves that had been rolling in all day. They wanted to stick together. From time to time they’d all clasp hands – sky-diver style – to keep from drifting apart as they floated and watched various underwater sights together. I wanted to savor that moment. Closing my eyes, I allowed myself to capture a mental image that enveloped not just the sight, but the sounds, the smells, the feeling of the experience, and it is one that I think will stay with me for a very long time.

5) Abundance isn’t based on the $$$
Vacations are often treated from a scarcity perspective: there’s not going to be enough, therefore, I must gorge and gorge and gorge to get my money’s (or time’s) worth. We want to capture the panicle moments of our vacation in social media, so we orchestrate and manipulate to create the best staging possible. In reality, vacations are the opportunity to pause and savor. When attention shifts to savoring rather than consuming, we begin to feel satisfied – fullfilled. When we are fulfilled, we don’t need to pile our plates at the all-you-can-eat buffets or cram our schedules to the point of exhaustion. We are able to be satisfied with enough rather than more . . . with what is rather than what should be.

Think about what you want out of your next vacation and then mindfully set about creating that to the best of your ability. Want to feel connected to those you are traveling with? Connect. Want to feel relaxed? Relax.

Elly Haddad of Elemental Fit is a certified holistic health coach specializing in helping people create a greater sense of mindfulness and empowerment when caring for themselves. She works with individuals and groups throughout the US, and is looking forward to some really great vacations with her family (that will include three grandchildren by the end of the year) for many years to come.

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