There’s a Special Joy in Going to a Gym When You’re Traveling—And It’s Got Nothing To Do With Getting Fit

Photo: Getty Images/Stigur Mar Karlsson/Heimsmyndir
Hiding in the only place appropriate for a class newbie, I attempted to salsa, shimmy, and shake at the back of the Zumba class. While I’d previously considered myself a decent dancer, I quickly realized my skills didn’t compare to the class regulars at a city center gym in Kampala, Uganda, who could bust out professional-level twerking moves. My subpar technique became further evident when the freestyle segment came into play and I had to take my dancing into the center of the circle.

This was 2019, and it was just one of the many unique gym experiences I’ve had while traveling abroad. While the clanging of weights and panting of patrons, the moist faces and smell of sweat are the universal hallmarks of nearly any gym session all around the world, over the years, I’ve learned that an exercise experience can vary massively depending on the country you’re in. As a result, I never pack my bags without sneakers in tow.

That wasn’t always the case though; I used to be one of those people who’d roll their eyes at anyone who worked out while away. Surely the calories didn’t count when you’re out of the country?

But then, my own travel ramped up. Prior to COVID-19, working as a journalist had me going somewhere new almost every two weeks. This meant that if I wasn’t heading to the gym during that time, my sessions would be cut in half. How could I expect to build any fitness with a two-week-on, two-week-off workout schedule? It soon became clear that the only way for exercise to be sustainable in my life was to take it on the road.

And so the lycra and lace-ups became essentials on the packing list, and I began booking hotels based on whether they had a decent gym or at least one nearby.

I quickly discovered that while a squat, deadlift, or push press feels equally grim wherever you exercise, the setting in which you do it can be a way of tapping into the local environment and experiencing what it means to work out in that country. From different post-workout drinks (hello, pineapple smoothies) and fitness fashion (not sure I’ll ever be able to pull off the barefoot and bikini top look of the Thai islands) to new music choices and meeting locals, spending time in a gym while abroad is a cultural experience in itself.

In San Francisco, I discovered (thanks to jet lag) that 4:30 a.m. is the time to meet the Silicon Valley types and learn about the latest in tech. In Seoul, the closest gym Google guided me to was all about retro bodybuilder memorabilia, granting me an education on the Korean greats. And in Alicante, Spain, I got to work out with a rooftop view of the city I’d otherwise never have seen.

For me, there’s now a joy that comes with gyming while away. I don’t see it as a chore, but as something to get excited about. I can squeeze in my sweat session and simultaneously see what fitness looks like locally. It’s also helped me shed a little of my ‘gymtimidation.’ Walking into different facilities, not knowing what the situation might be and whether you’ll fit in can be daunting, but generally being met with friendly faces, regardless of the culture, means it’s gotten easier over the years.

Of course, not every session is going to add value to your trip. If you’re confined to the hotel, the equipment might be subpar and the air conditioning temperamental. The same type of people you’d find posing in the mirror at your home gym might be doing the same in Senegal. And I’ve found that “80s dance classics” may be the mandatory global gym playlist. But there’s a chance you might learn something new, meet someone different, discover a new class, or just rediscover your gym mojo.

For instance, my Viking-esque classmates at a New Year’s Day class in Bali’s Bambu gym had me recommit to fitness goals for the year ahead. Attending a different F45 gym to the one in my own city made me notice the progress I’d made without realizing it, and the walk to find a gym in Geneva meant discovering an entirely new part of the city.

I get that going into any new gym can be a little anxiety-inducing, the effort of finding one in an unfamiliar location can be extra work, and the room your sneakers take up in a suitcase can be annoying. But I no longer see exercising as taking time away from a trip. It’s a form of tourism in itself. And I fully believe it's worth embracing the worldwide workout.

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