A beach vacation can be a runner-mom's paradise: fresh air, free time and, if you're lucky, free baby-sitting.
During annual trips to the Jersey Shore with my extended family, I'm happily up before my kids' 6 a.m. cry for chocolate-chip pancakes, running longer and faster on the flat, stress-free ribbon of seaside road than I do on the hilly, anxiety- and traffic-clogged streets of my suburban neighborhood.
I realize that not everyone sees vacation as a time to escalate a fitness routine. If you're not a runner or a swimmer, or haven't bothered to lug a bike on the back of your car, or don't have family around to watch your kids, it's not so easy to maintain your regimen.
And with all that beautiful scenery and fun family activities to enjoy, it can be hard to find the motivation or time to exercise -- or the justification for spending money on a gym guest pass, yoga studio or bike rental.
But exercise at the beach doesn't have to be difficult, expensive or burdensome. You can maintain your fitness through some basic exercises, or even through beach activities you may be planning anyway. And if you decide to take the time off completely, the setback to your fitness level is easily restored, experts say.
If you decide on the minimalist option, you could bring a mat or towel to the beach and fashion your own yoga practice. You could also pack some lightweight exercise tools such as resistance bands or jump ropes, says Jo Zimmerman, an instructor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Maryland and a longtime trainer.
Sue Immerman, a certified personal trainer at MAD Fitness in Takoma Park, Md., suggests buying two gallons of water and using them for a simple weightlifting routine.
An even more minimalist option: Just use your family. "You have a 5-year-old nephew, you have a barbell," Zimmerman says. "Piggyback rides are great for the legs. Give a piggyback ride while doing squats and you have done some weighted squats."
Most of us, understandably, would prefer to have our back reclining into a beach chair. Many of her clients leave for vacation with the best of intentions, Zimmerman said, but return "saying that they threw in the towel on eating well and exercise."
Yet all is not lost. First, says Rosemary Lindle, an exercise physiologist and an adjunct professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland, studies show that you can maintain your fitness level even when taking some time off.
Second, time off is itself an important part of any training program. "Think of your vacation as an active recovery or cross-training period," she said. "A well-balanced, periodized fitness program includes recovery breaks."
On the beach, recovery could include lighter-level activities such as hiking, cycling, swimming, snorkeling, even beach volleyball.
But how well do these activities compare to a more typical exercise routine?
As you might expect, it depends on both the activity and level of effort. An hour of stand-up paddleboarding, for example, can burn as many as 545 calories, according to Jessica Matthews, a certified personal trainer and health coach and assistant professor of health and exercise science at Miramar College in San Diego, who crunched some beach activity numbers.
An hour of digging in the sand is almost as good: as many as 454 calories per hour (all numbers quoted here are approximate and for a typical 150-pound woman or 200-pound man). Even lugging all those chairs and buckets to the beach can do you some calorie-burning good (as many as 73 calories burned for every 10 minutes carrying 15 pounds of gear).
And yet that iconic walk on the beach isn't necessarily the best option, says Immerman, especially if brisk walking isn't part of your regular routine.
A 30-minute beach walk (at a 3.5 mph pace on flat-packed sand) burns about 147 calories for a woman and about 195 for a man, according to Matthews.
That's a decent workout -- "better than spending the entire week in a beach chair," Immerman conceded -- but a long walk on soft and slanted sand can pose challenges to knees, hips and even shoulders and backs.
And, of course, be mindful when doing exercises that seem to go hand-in-hand with eating. Biking to get a soft-serve cone, for example, isn't necessarily a net win: A 30-minute bike ride on a flat beach road burns up to 264 calories, according to Matthews' calculations. But that swirl cone could tip the balance with as many 335 calories, according to the USDA's Food Tracker. A glass of lemonade, at about 100 calories, might be a better way to cool off. Or better yet, stick to water.
Once you're back home, remember to ease back into your routine. "One week is not much time to be off at all," Immerman says. But be sure to warm up and pace yourself.