Ship shape: 9 tips for staying fit on a cruise

Jan 31, 2020

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The first time I ever used a gym on a cruise ship, I didn’t really exercise. Honestly, I had to talk myself into going. But when I walked into the ship’s fitness center, with its procession of treadmills and floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing open ocean views, I was eager to jump into my workout.

Cruise ships sometimes get a bad rep with fitness fiends because of the all-you-can-eat buffets, inclusive beverage packages and proliferation of lounge chairs (read: days spent sitting in the sun). All this can make for a great vacation, but if you’re not careful, you could find yourself leaving the ship a few pounds heavier than when you boarded.

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Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t go and enjoy the (sometimes) complimentary daiquiris and soft-serve ice cream. But whether you’re on the ship for four nights of two months, it’s important to stay active. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to keep moving while cruising.

Here’s how you can stay fit on your next cruise while minimizing the amount of time you spend exercising — unless, of course, you’re really into fitness (we’ll get to that later).

Photo by apomares / Getty Images.
Photo by apomares / Getty Images.

Get your exercise

Most cruise ships have a fitness center that’s free to use — and fitness enthusiasts who enjoy cruising typically hit the gym on sea days.

You’ll often find a wide range of cardio machines, including treadmills, ellipticals and stationary bikes, as well as weight training machines (cable machines and a leg press) and free weights.

Many cruise ships also offer fitness classes. Royal Caribbean, for example, offers yoga, Pilates and spinning classes on their ships. Carnival Cruise Line offers the same, plus bootcamp classes. On Norwegian Cruise Line you can also take a spin class or, if you’re sailing on Norwegian Breakaway, a high-intensity boxing class. Cruisers should keep in mind that these are often available for an additional fee.

Prefer to stay outside and maximize the sunlight? Take to the top deck for a run. There are running tracks on every Royal Caribbean ship except Empress of the Seas. On Carnival cruises, you’ll find padded running tracks on nearly all of the vessels, and fitness-fiends will love Carnival’s deck-top SkyFitness gym on the Carnival Breeze, Carnival Horizon, Carnival Magic, Carnival Sunshine and Carnival Vista ships.

Best of all, you don’t even need to work out to stay fit during a cruise. All you really have to do is skip the elevator. The largest passenger cruise ship on Earth, Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas, has 18 decks: If you walk up and down the stairs every day, you’ll be shocked how quickly you get in your steps during a cruise — even if you are on your way to the buffet.

Watch what you eat

You might think it’s impossible to eat healthy on a cruise ship, but it may actually be easier than it is at home.

First, the dreaded buffet may not be such a bad thing after all. With ample salad bars, fresh soups and extensive fruit selections, travelers who are selective can easily avoid the endless vat of French fries and mozzarella sticks. In the morning, breakfast buffets typically include a make-your-own omelet bar (request egg whites with vegetables and hold the cheese), hard-boiled eggs and even more fruit. When you’re at home, it may be difficult to find fresh or healthy foods — and they are often more expensive than their processed counterparts. But at a cruise ship buffet, making the healthy choice doesn’t cost any extra.

Even in sit-down restaurants, cruise lines increasingly have a handful of healthful dishes on the menu, even if they’re not exactly crowd pleasers. On some vessels — Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, for instance — there are sections of restaurant menus dedicated to spa cuisine. At Queen Mary 2’s Britannia restaurant, spa cuisine items are designed in partnership with Canyon Ranch.

Other lines are even doubling down on the wellness movement by introducing health-focused à la carte restaurants. Grab a seat at Celebrity’s complimentary Spa Cafe, now on most of the line’s vessels. Cruisers can order grilled chicken breast with steamed vegetables; a low-sodium arugula salad with grapefruit segments; and poached fruits with herbs and spices. On the two most recent Princess Cruises vessels, cruisers can now elbow up to an Ocean Terrace Bar turning out raw, fresh-squeezed fruit and vegetable juices (for an upcharge), and even budget line Carnival has a Mongolia Wok restaurant on six of its ships. Pro tip: Skip the noodles and stick with fresh vegetables and lean proteins.

Related: Cruise line showdown: Comparing Carnival, Disney and Royal Caribbean for families

Cruisers should also be mindful of those pesky liquid calories. We’re talking about alcohol, juices and sodas, or those tropical cocktails that contain all three. Stick with red wine or straight liquor mixed with club soda instead, or try a NorCal Margarita (a favorite in the CrossFit and Paleo communities): tequila, club soda, lemon or lime, salt and ice.

Sure, it’s tempting to grab a slice of cake or a frozen cocktail when they’re constantly available, but the key is to not go overboard. That’s a cruise pun — see what I did there?

Book active excursions

When the ship arrives at a port, you’re probably going to want to get off the ship, stretch your legs and explore — not spend a day in the gym. And that’s good news, because there are plenty of ways to get your steps on dry land.

Depending you where you’re cruising, you may have the opportunity to go cycling, hiking, snorkeling, scuba diving, paddleboarding or surfing. Take advantage of excursions and find ways to be active while sightseeing. Even if you simply book a walking tour in a major city, try to make active choices when possible.

During a recent Disney cruise, I went snorkeling in the Bahamas with my family and had a blast (Disney’s “Snorkel and Beach Adventure” excursions from Nassau start at $93 for adults). On top of enjoying a day in the clear water watching ocean life, our snorkeling excursion elevated our heart rates while simultaneously keeping us relaxed, just like yoga. Did you know the average person can burn between 250 and 300 calories in an hour of snorkeling?

Now, river cruise lines are diving into the fray. AmaWaterways even has dedicated Wellness Hosts who lead fitness classes (resistance band stretches, cardio dance) and active excursions. Last year, wellness hosts were available on all but three AmaWaterways vessels. You can bike along the Regensburg countryside, for example, or join a guided hike up the Philosopher’s Path in Heidelberg.

Find the right cruise

If you’re really into fitness, there are now cruises that are entirely focused on exercise. That’s right: You can book a cruise that offers exceptional fitness facilities, active excursions off the ship and group workouts led by premier athletes.

Photo courtesy of WOD on the Waves Cruise.
Photo courtesy of WOD on the Waves Cruise.

WOD on the Waves

If you’re into crossfit, you can now exercise with your favorite athletes, including Rich Froning and Brooke Wells, on a cruise ship.

WOD on the Waves (WOD stands for workout of the day) had its inaugural cruise in 2019, and the next one is setting sail in April of 2020 from Miami. The five-day cruise onboard the Celebrity Infinity will stop in the Bahamas before returning to Miami. Rates start at $899 per person, based on double occupancy.

On the ship, passengers can enjoy group workouts with dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, rowers, SkiErgs and AirBikes, while also participating in bodyweight training, yoga classes and bootcamp-style calisthenics. There will even be an informational session featuring New York City’s signature athletic-based training facility, Tone House. During the sailing, cruisers can join seminars and workshops about training and nutrition taught by experts and icons like the “Fittest Woman on Earth,” Camille Leblanc-Bazinet. At night, let loose at a themed party.

Virgin Voyages

Richard Branson-backed Virgin Voyages will set sail in March, and though it’s not designed exclusively for fitness enthusiasts, travelers can’t deny it goes above and beyond in terms of wellness.

The line’s first ship, Scarlet Lady, recently completed her sea trials and will set sail with an outdoor yoga space and al fresco training zone complete with a boxing ring and gymnastics equipment. There’s also an outdoor track called “The Runway” for running, walking and rollerblading.

The ship’s B-Complex (for build, burn, bike and balance) will feature cardio and strength training equipment for gym sessions. Fitness classes will also be available daily for those who prefer to sweat in a group setting, and there’s a promising vegetarian restaurant, Razzle Dazzle.

Related: How to plan a cruise with points and miles

Bottom Line

Cruises can be a great way to kick back and relax, or explore multiple destinations without having to unpack — but that doesn’t mean you should completely toss away your fitness routine. Cruise lines have made it easier than ever for passengers to hit the gym, take a fitness class or go for a run without stepping foot on dry land. So take advantage of it, even for just a few minutes a day. Of course, if you’re passionate about fitness like I am now, you might find an even better fit on a fitness themed (or focused) cruise. So, maybe it’s time you considered a cruise that combines the open ocean, stops at beautiful ports and a set of dumbbells.

Feature image by Westend61 / Getty Images.

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