Watching other people exercise at La Vogalonga, Venice's famous boat race.

Watching other people exercise at La Vogalonga, Venice's famous boat race.

As I type this from my desk at the gorgeous new Woolf Works, a women’s co-working space in the heart of central Singapore, I am nursing a horrid case of jet lag which feels eerily akin to the hangovers I used to battle at least a few times a week. I’m usually zippy and fresh after a long flight now that I’m not downing the mile high cocktails, but this time, no such luck.

My husband Ryan and I have just returned from a blissful two week holiday in Italy, my favorite “old country”, where we embarked on a driving adventure in the North, commencing in Rome and ending in the delicious foodie village of Modena, with a few nights each in Bracciano, Venice, Florence, and Assisi. Italy is perhaps the oddest destination choice for a teetotaler who also happens to be a figure competitor with autoimmune issues (read: food restrictions & intolerances).

After all, aside from washing down copious amounts of cheese with buckets of wine while basking under sunlit grapevine canopies, what else does one do in Italy?

Thousands of wheels of cheese, oh my! A cheese tasting at the 4 Madonne dell'Emilia Dairy.

Thousands of wheels of cheese, oh my! A cheese tasting at the 4 Madonne dell'Emilia Dairy.

It was my second trip to Italy as a sober chick, and I still thank my lucky stars that I’d never visited as a card-carrying lush because my only memories of it would have likely been based on embarrassing vacation photos. And, I’ve gotta say, the rumors are true- this Mediterranean paradise is indeed the toughest place in the world to continue a commitment to health & sobriety, no matter where you are on your journey.

First, wine is offered everywhere, and the refusal to partake is sometimes met with quizzical glares. “Baby?” one waiter had asked me on my first trip there, rubbing his tummy with a smile.
Second, the food is RICH- think cheese, bread and cold cuts galore. I wasn’t once able to score an egg white omelette for breakfast, and I’ve yet to spot a sweet potato or protein shake there. Third, the concept of a “gym” is still quite foreign. Although they do exist, exercising with the aid of machines just isn’t Italy’s scene and the only heavy lifting you may see is the lifting of a 50kg wheel of parmesan cheese. Finally, the entire vibe of Italy reeks of leisure and indulgence- a lust for life- which may be why so many gravitate to the region, including me!

So, how does one thrive as a vacationer in Italy while staying sober or upholding other health & fitness goals in the process? Here are my 4 tips to loving your Italian vacation without hating yourself when the holiday’s over!

A Crodino Mocktail. Crodino is a non-alcoholic bitter apertif... and delicious! 

A Crodino Mocktail. Crodino is a non-alcoholic bitter apertif... and delicious! 

1. Get real. Accept that you’re not going to be able to stay on track 100% on all fronts without being miserable. Yes, you read that correctly! Italy is not the place to aim for perfection, and if you want to stay happy, you’ll need to make a few concessions. That means deciding the difference between your “non-negotiables” and your “wiggle areas” before you go. For me, remaining sober is a “non-negotiable”, and I was prepared to do whatever it took to keep it that way, which meant constantly refusing glasses of wine and grappa and even asking my hubby to enjoy a few meals without the booze when I started to feel fatigued by it all. In my nearly seven years of sobriety, Italy is for some reason the only place that I’ve been where I feel like I struggle a bit, mainly because the strong smell of alcohol is so pervasive, which is also a good reminder for me that recovery is a lifetime job. 

However, I knew that restricting across the board throughout the trip may trigger some depression or anxiety (as restricting is known to do for many), so I loosened the bodybuilding belt and allowed myself to eat what I wanted- including some things that made me feel a bit awful afterward- and I also made sure to get in at least 10,000 steps a day. I exercised when I could, but I didn’t make it a top priority. The result of this approach? Feeling balanced and content overall while encouraging my intuitive body to lead the way when it came to eating. For instance, after a bit of an inflammatory flare up from a few too many pastries I started not to want them anymore and that was ok.

2. Lace up those walking shoes. You may not be able to find a gym in your area, but you can certainly find a million reasons to tour around an Italian village on foot. Opportunities for walking and hiking are endless in Italy, and the best way to get to know the country is a “step at a time,” whether that’s winding through cobblestone streets, hiking up mountain peaks, or climbing a few dozen flights of stairs at one of the many stunning cathedrals, like Il Duomo di Firenze. If you have a smart watch like FitBit, decide on a step goal for each day ahead and don’t forget to bring your camera! Yes, you may not get to pump much iron or attend regular yoga classes in Italy, but there’s no excuse not to get the blood flowing. Many of the smaller villages are also great for running, and there are countless public parks as well, including my world favorite, the Villa Doria Pamphili.

Villa Doria Pamphili, I love you. 

Villa Doria Pamphili, I love you. 

3. Focus on all of the options you DO have, rather than the ones you don’t! Italy offers so much variety in the way of both food and beverage, and while you may have to miss out on a few things, your options for enjoyment are endless. Gluten intolerant? Then pastas and crusty breads are out for you, but all the succulent fruits, sun-drenched veggies and scrumptious cheeses are not! Does booze make you break out in handcuffs? So, wine’s not going to be your thing but you can still drink all of the Crodinos you want, as well as rich and frothy coffees and my all-time favorite, acqua frizzante with a slice of lemon. There are also AA meetings throughout the country and online groups like SMART Recovery if you need some extra support. Doing the Paleo thing? Then head to Tuscany for a sizzling grilled steak and some traditionally cured meats, or to the Amalfi Coast for some amazing seafood. 

If you want to feel deprived, focus on all of the things you can’t have. If you want to feel gloriously satiated, enjoy all of the things available to you. The same advice applies to everyday life, by the way. ;-)

I asked for egg whites- or just eggs- pretty much everywhere we went. This was the reality more often than not! 

I asked for egg whites- or just eggs- pretty much everywhere we went. This was the reality more often than not! 

4. Capitalize on the fact that we all need a break sometimes, and schedule your vacation to Italy accordingly. If you’re engaged in a regular exercise routine 4-6 days a week and you’re pushing yourself to the max most days, congratulations! Now, here’s the rub- you actually need to take a week off from training once in a while to get the most benefit out of it. A recovery or de-loading week is generally recommended anywhere from every 3 to 8 months, depending on your sport or intensity. This means dramatically reduced physical activity for a good week to let the body rest and repair itself. If you’re not engaged in a serious training plan and feel like you wouldn’t benefit from giving your body a break, focus on a mental “time out” instead. I doubt that anyone today reading this isn’t experiencing some form of stress in their life, whether in their job, marriage, finances or mental well-being. Use your vacation as a chance to reset, and maybe commit to a short daily meditation session or some time at a spa while you’re there. A holiday is meant to be just that! Give yourself permission to breathe and relax.

As a health & behavior change coach, addiction therapist and soberista, these are four of my tips for enjoying your holiday in Italy while upholding a healthy lifestyle. Health isn’t meant to feel rigid, so remember to make some space in your life for flexibility and flow!

Ciao for now,

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