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The Travel Bug Just Makes You Sick and Insufferable

"Sick" as in bad for your health.

Joanne Spataro

Joanne Spataro

As a writer, I'm able to work from anywhere. A coffee shop. The basement of a punk rock club. The beach. This affords me the opportunity to travel, and nixes the excuses of "I can't go here because I'm stuck at a desk." The world is my office.

But I'm not about to glorify a nomadic lifestyle as a (fairly) young person. How it turned me into a glorious butterfly that soars above everyone else. No tired tropes of wing-spreading. No photos of me doing a handstand on a sandy white beach (mostly because I'm too bottom heavy to make it happen).

Imagine this instead: Me on a doughnut tour of Portland for a food piece I'm writing, hitting up Blue Star and Voodoo like they are simply laps in a pool, and having to eat salads when I got home to so I don't die of saturated-fat shock. (While that's not a thing, I can sometimes feel the doughnut glaze aggressively coating the inside of my aorta.)

The truth of traveling when you're way under retirement age is more complicated than it appears in an Instagram photo of a lithe, harem-pants-clad white lady eating coconut rice in Phuket while she taps away on her laptop. While a 2016 survey revealed that many young people like me find it empowering and freeing to take a "non-traditional" path and travel instead of settling into that white picket fence and 2.5 kids life, this lifestyle can take a toll on our bodies, which naturally crave consistency.

The survey looked at 3,000 US adults made up of 1,000 baby boomers (ages 52-70), 1,000 Gen-Xers (ages 37-51) and 1,000 millennials (ages 20-36). Overall, 70 percent of the millennials or seven in ten young people, preferred to explore, experiment, and travel before they reached retirement age, which is currently 67 for those born after 1960.

Millennials want a non-linear life path away from the school, work, and retirement conveyor belt, instead desiring to explore new cities, live in new places, and take more risks. We don't need a study to tell us that. We're bombarded with images of it on social media and in think pieces about being a citizen of the world. Yes, I know. Working from Brazil is awesome and everyone loves Caipirinhas.

This is all a valiant effort to fight FOMO, I get it: Thirty-eight percent of millennials in the survey said they already wished they'd taken more chances on what they really wanted to do.

But ditching a lease in favor of wanderlust isn't as healthy and freeing as you might think it is. Traveling on a regular basis can change how and when we eat, even our digestion. It can take our bodies some time to get used to the different foods we're eating while traveling internationally (and even domestically) because we're used to a certain routine, says Mary Brooks, a North Carolina-based certified health coach who provides individual and group health coaching. Issues related to your circadian rhythm, or our body's clocks, may be more psychological than physiological.

"It takes your body a long time to adjust to new foods; it takes your body a long time to adjust to new routines, and I think it's the same thing: It's the balance," says Elizabeth Reyes-Fournier, Florida-based psychotherapist and psychology professor at Keiser University. "One of the reasons people don't travel is the fear of being out of balance...When it comes to being flexible to things and re-adjusting yourself to a new routine, things like how to adapt to jet lag are all ways of mitigating that lack of homeostasis." It's not until you get back into a rhythm that you feel normal again, she says. Having an erratic schedule can throw you off your poop game as well. Traveler's constipation is real, and it will make you cranky.

Robert Jennings, 33, has been a flight attendant for ten years and he's found that traveling for work or play has messed with his diet and overall physical health. His weight has fluctuated during his career—as much as 20 or 30 lbs at a time—and he often struggles to find healthy snacks and meals when he's traveling. "The diet is so, so challenging," says Jennings. "When I'm traveling, I'm at restaurants and a lot of times; it's airport food, and that's not good."

MaiAda Carpano, a teacher in San Diego, has also experienced the effects of an inconsistent eating regimen during her travels, and it's not the way we traditionally think of (over-eating on vacation and going back to a normal diet at home). She went to college in Italy for four years, and traveled around Europe enjoying a croissant for breakfast and sticking to a well-rounded vegetarian diet. Once she returned home to the States, though, adaptation proved difficult and she began to gain weight. "I had a much harder time re-adjusting to being back in the States and eating a more typical American diet," Carpano says.

When it comes to exercising while traveling, your fitness routine (assuming you have one to begin with) can become challenging to translate into a new and unfamiliar space. Remaining active is crucial though, if you insist on taking several modes of transit a year. Brooks suggests finding ways to move even when you're sitting in a car or on a plane. "The more you sit, the more fatigued you are, and movement can really help," she says. "Any time you can walk the length of the airport when you're waiting for a flight or if you're traveling and can take mini breaks in the fresh air, do a few simple squats or stretches, all of those things are going to help your muscles move a little more freely."

Traveling can also hit our sleep patterns hard. Desiree Kane, a photojournalist who spent months covering the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, says she gets good sleep while she's on the road—when she actually has the time to close her eyes. "In some ways, I work and am engaged until I'm exhausted every day so I sleep well, at whatever time that happens," she says. "That may be healthy, but a routine is supposed to be healthier." 

But her skin has been another issue. "When I was at Oceti Sakowin camp with no running water and relying on disposable wipes for skin care, it was a mess," says Kane. "Breakouts and blackheads everywhere. I didn't want to use cover up because it would make it worse. I mostly stopped wearing makeup all together until I left in December." She's found that kicking coffee and drinking more water has helped her skin while traveling.

Traveling while maintaining some of the consistencies from home—maybe breakfast and stretching after prolonged periods—seems to be key if you insist on traveling like you might die soon. And I'll have to give up a donut (or three) so I can keep it up too.