Like many of us, I use to have the notion that I could let my health routines slide a bit while I travel because I could take really good care of myself when I got home.
But I’ve had to abandon this notion. Because the reality is, I’m kind of always traveling. So how I take care of myself on the road is how I take care of myself. Period.
So I’ve gotten much more serious about staying healthy on the road, particularly when it comes to my musculoskeletal health.
The thing is, I’ve got issues: debilitating sciatica, back spasms that come out of nowhere, and all kinds of alignment issues that make my life impossible when they’re flaring up. It’s important for what I do that I’m fit and able to physically handle all the situations I may find myself in.
On top of that, when I look at my family, and how some of the older generations are pretty hunched over, it’s obvious that maintaining my posture, and my physical health, are going to be key to keeping me spry and active throughout my life.
So I’ve figured out some sure-fire ways to keep my actual body in tip-top shape, no matter where I am.
In addition to my daily supplements and Nootroo as-needed, here are the absolute cornerstones of what keeps me happy and healthy on (and off) the road:
1. Heavy bags, no wheels, all stairs
I don’t have a traditional exercise routine. But I’ve made a conscious choice not to make traveling easy. Instead of a suitcase with wheels, I carry everything – camera equipment and all – in duffel bags, shoulder bags, and backpacks. It’s hard sometimes – especially in the beginning – but it’s gotten easier because I’ve gotten stronger. Now I consider it part of my weight-lifting regimen. I also take the stairs instead of elevators or escalators in airports and train stations. For some reason, everyone gets really lazy after a flight, but I think it’s good for you to get a little exercise after 11 hours of sitting in a chair in the air.
I have a friend (who will remain nameless) who often complains about his back and tells me he couldn’t carry bags the way I do. But all I can say is, I notice his back’s not getting any better – in fact, it’s getting worse. And mine’s getting better, and stronger.
My new favorite bag is the Mission Workshop Radian. The bag is so well designed though that it really doesn’t feel like I’m carrying that much weight. It’s usually when I hand it to someone else that I realize how dense I can pack that bag!
2. 5-minute Yoga Promise
I do yoga every day. My commitment to myself is 5 minutes a day. I figure that’s a manageable goal for every single day of my life. Because when do you not have 5 minutes? (See below for a short video of my travel yoga routine.)
I try to do this first thing in the morning. And what often happens is, about 4 minutes in, I realize this is probably the most important thing I’ll do for myself all day, and 5 minutes becomes 15 minutes… becomes 30 minutes… sometimes 45 minutes or an hour. I’ll do a few poses, and then I’ll do a psoas release exercise I recently learned, or Wim Hof breathing (see below), or meditation. And on days when I really don’t have 5 minutes? I’ll do 30 seconds. Because seriously, who doesn’t have 30 seconds to do yoga?
The real key to this practice is my yoga mat. I always bring it with me. A yoga mat is a pretty big size commitment for someone who travels carry-on only. But I got a hyper-thin, super grippy yoga mat. Most yoga mats are too wide to fit in a carry-on pack, so I cut the mat a bit narrower, and I find I usually don’t miss the extra width. It rolls up tight, it’s not too heavy, it fits in my duffel bag, and it does the trick. It’s absolutely worth it.
3. The Power of Blue Balls
The other thing I always pack is my magic blue balls.
Before I found my magic blue balls, I used to just tape two tennis balls together, but now I have these injection-molded rubber balls that I swear by.
Along with my other back issues, I’ve got really deep tension in my back. Every time I get a massage, the therapist says, “Wow, this is intense,” and then tells me I should be getting body work twice a week. Which, of course, I can’t do while on the road.
Instead, every day I lay the blue balls on the ground and then lie on top of them, with my spine over the gap between the balls. (You never want to put pressure on your actual spine.) Then I roll up and down over the balls, which massages the muscles on either side of my spine and seems to loosen up all the calcification and tightened fascia that seem to lead to me being hunched over.
From doing this, I’ve noticed my back has gotten so much better. In particular, it used to be that when I was hung over, I’d get really bad back pain that was hard to get rid of. Now, even just five minutes with these balls and I’m so much happier. I’ve also noticed my posture is better.
And there’s a side-benefit I’m now noticing: because of the way I use these balls, I’m also strengthening my core. Rather than just lie down on the balls passively, I bend my knees so my feet are on the ground, and lift my pelvis and my head/shoulders off the ground so there’s as much pressure as possible on my back muscles. Then I roll myself over the balls, from my neck all the way down to my sacral area. It actually takes a good amount of effort from the core, stabilizing muscles (abs, back, hips, glutes) to do this, but I hardly notice because I’m focusing so much on my back. I didn’t realize how strong I’d gotten until I let my little sister – who is ripped – try it, and she could hardly even start.
You can also use these on your butt and legs and anything else that feels tight or sore. It’s kind of everything you want from a roller, but more. Like amazing shiatsu massage. But portable. Boom!
4. Wim Hof Method
By now you’ve probably heard of The Iceman (no, not Top Gun). Wim Hof earned this name by setting the world record for sitting in an ice bath, 1 hr 13 min and 48 seconds. He holds 25 other world records as well. More than that though, when I met him, I was truly moved by him as a person. He taught me his breathing technique and it’s become a powerful tool in my travels. You can read more about The Wim Hof Method here.
I use it specifically when I feel myself start to get sick. It doesn’t matter where I am, I’ll do the exercises. Once on a bus in Morocco, I told my friends not to freak out, I’m intentionally doing what’s about to happen and then double strapped myself in with seatbelts and went for it. I even did it sitting in the audience of a conference in Shanghai. My quick version, which is probably departing enough from his version, that I should call it the Doc North Don’t Get Sick Breathing Exercise (catchy huh?!) takes about 25 minutes. Way better than having a 10 day cold while on the road.
5. PSOAS Stretches and Trauma Relief Exercises
I’ve had lots of issues with my back and sciatica, and doing daily yoga has had a huge impact on keeping both in tip-top shape.
One of the things I’ve found to make the most difference is a set of stretches that focus heavily on the psoas muscle. This is especially important if you travel. When I sit for extended periods, the psoas is all bunched up and tends to tighten up.
The psoas is a muscle in the groin/hip area, which basically ties everything together. It’s the muscle that attaches your legs to your hips and spine. It’s the one that causes my sciatica, and it’s also said to be where you store a lot of emotional trauma. Recently I’ve stumbled upon a short yoga routine that puts me into a trauma relief state. Basically, it puts me into a kind of trembling, shaking state that can last up to an hour. And wow, do I feel different after!
I’m not a zoologist, but as I understand it, the idea is that, if there’s a herd of deer and a lion comes up and grabs one of the deer, the other deer run away, and when they’re finally safe, they tremble and shake. They’ve just had a really traumatic experience, and their bodies have been flooded with chemicals that induce the fight-or-flight response. But once the threat is gone, those chemicals need to be flushed out of the body. And that’s what the trembling does.
All mammals do this except humans. We’ve been taught that it’s not socially acceptable to tremble and shake. So we hold it all in. Which means our bodies have a build-up of those fight-or-flight chemicals, which can cause a lot of physical problems (as well as psychological/emotional ones, like anxiety). So the idea of these exercises is that you initiate a trembling state and release those chemicals.
I’ve recently started doing this, and it’s amazing. I can literally lay there for an hour afterward just trembling and shaking, and then I feel incredible after that.
I had a friend that was really suffering and asked me to record my routine for her. Since then I’ve had a few friends as for it. I’m not a yoga teacher, but it gets the point across. The sequence both focuses on my psoas and will put me into a trauma relief tremble at the end. Honestly, it’s a little embarrassing to post this, so be kind!
After getting my 7th cold in a year (probably something to do with the 20+ countries), I decided it was time to do something about it. I realized that when I traveled I was missing some important things in my diet, namely greens. Also, I’ve noticed that it’s really good to take probiotics while traveling to keep functional gut flora. I started taking this green powder supplement and didn’t get sick for a year. I’m well aware of Athletic Greens, which Tim Ferris endorses. They’re amazing, but triple the price–and frankly Green Vibrance does the trick!
7. Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living
Another one of my secret weapons is HANAH ONE.
It’s an Ayurvedic superfood made from honey, ghee, sesame oil, and nearly 30 botanicals, including Amalakii and ashwagandha, which is an adaptogen.
I came across this mixture a few years ago while helping a friend start HANAH. I read up on the Ayurvedic literature, spent months in India with the Ayurvedic doctor there and use it myself. The results are pretty amazing. Now that I no longer represent the company, I can share my personal experiences with the product.
HANAH ONE is a sustained, long-term wellness tool. Its benefits are more subtle, though no less important. When I’m taking Hanah regularly, I feel generally more healthy and vibrant. I feel like my immune system’s stronger. I feel more articulate, have better word selection. And my libido is remarkably higher, which is not an insignificant benefit. I had a lady friend the other day express to me that she had to stop taking it because she was too aroused. So I highly recommend both partners in a relationship take it at the same time!
Poop, we all do it. However, when I’m taking HANAH ONE I notice that I am regular and consistent, no minor feat when on the road constantly! This is exciting for me because it’s about the only place in my life where I have a solid routine.
8. Nootropics, beat jet lag and get a brain boost
I love these things. If I really need to hit the “go” button on my brain, these do the trick.
Nootroo is a supplement in the class of nootropics, a class of compounds said to enhance mental abilities, focus, and concentration, while also having positive long-term effects on the brain. For the past few years, nootropics have been a big topic among techies and high performers in Silicon Valley, and among fans of high-visibility bio-hackers like Tim Ferriss (of The 4-Hour Workweek fame) and Dave Asprey (inventor of Bulletproof coffee).
There are lots of different kinds of nootropics, but I’d heard good things about Nootroo, created by Eric Matzner. So I decided to try them first.
I noticed two types of positive effects right away: the type I associate with the nootropic compounds, like mental clarity and focus, and the type I associate with the added caffeine, like sustained alertness and energy. Regarding the latter, it felt like drinking coffee, but not so hard on my system. There is a caffeine-free option of Nootroo now.
Eric says it’s good to take Nootroos every day because there are long-term, cumulative effects of taking them over time. I take them regularly and then also strategically, doubling up on big days, or long nights out.
I take them when I really want to be on, focused, and fully engaged in what I’m doing, whether that’s work, meetings, or conversations.
If you enjoyed this article you may also like my essential gear review.