Staying Healthy on the Road: Why Travelers get Sick

Just like we become unhealthy one small step at a time, in the same way, we can become healthy one small step at a time. Taken from http://pinkcandyandstilettos.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/little-steps.jpg

(I didn’t write this well, and some people have taken it to mean that vandwellers aren’t healthy when I believe just the opposite. I believe every vandweller I have ever known has gotten healthier the longer they did it. In this post I’m only referring to short term trips and new vandwellers. I’ve know quite a few newbies who were sick within their first few months of this new lie and then got much better. Another example is Judy; she has been healthy the whole time she has been vandwelling, but on this trip she got sick for the first time; I attribute that to the short term stress of the trip.)

As I told you in an earlier post, one of the biggest problems we ran into on our Alaska trip was illness. Judy caught an epic cold and had a flare up of an old health problem. I remember thinking at the time how common it was to catch a cold during or right after a trip. It seems that somehow, traveling or road trips makes us substantially more susceptible to common illnesses or makes existing problems worse. If we fly, we tend to blame being trapped in the plane with other peoples germ as the main cause; and while that may contribute, I think there is much more to the story than just that. It’s the feather that broke the camel’s back, the real problem was everything that was piled on before it.

Since the majority of new vandwellers and RVers spend much of their first year traveling, I really wanted to offer some insight into why we get sick and what we can do to avoid it. Much more than that, to some degree all vandwellers live on the road and so finding the causes and solutions of health issues caused by the road becomes critically important to us; probably the single greatest issue we face.

Quote-Start-each-week

Because this is a really big and important topic, I’m going to break it down into two parts. Today we are going to look why we are more susceptible to illness as vandwellers and travelers and in the next post I’ll talk about what I see as solutions.

Lesson Number Eleven: Take care of your health; why we get sick.

Most Americans are not very good at taking care of our health anyway, but generally when you hit the road even that mediocre care goes down the tubes. However, I think that’s a mistake. It’s more important to take excellent care of your health while traveling or during a Road Trip than at any other time, because it’s when you are most susceptible to getting sick. How many times have you gone on a vacation and come down with a cold and flu? If you are like most people, pretty often. Why do we so often get sick on trips? If you think about it, it’s totally reasonable that you would get sick while traveling for these reasons:

1) Most of us are older: While I am delighted by how many young people are making the change to vandwelling and RVing, we are still a predominately older crowd. The simple fact is that the older we get the more physical problems we are susceptible to and the less our bodies are able to cope and adapt to sudden changes. And sudden changes is what a Road Trip is all about! At 59, I’m much more likely to get sick on a Road Trip than I was at 29 if for no other reason that my immune system is nowhere near as strong as it was then. And science makes it very clear, that when I’m 69 I will be much more susceptible than I am now. That’s why I am going now instead of waiting until then!!!

2) A large quantity of extra stress: Getting ready for the trip piles on an abundance of new stress on top of all your normal day-to-day stress; that weakens your immune system to some degree. Then, the trip itself can be extremely stressful because almost nothing ever goes exactly as planned. Some examples of that are, the budget, traffic, road conditions, relationships and even the weather. On our trip, we found driving through Canada to be stressful because of the switch to kilometers and liters. And they have the most bizarre road signs I’ve ever seen—many of them we never did figure out. Generally, none of these things are big in themselves, in fact most of them are small. But because the small stresses of a Road Trip are totally different and unique from your daily life, you aren’t adapted to it and it hits you harder. Then they combine and add up to having a very large impact on you. Modern science has conclusively proven that stress can have a tremendous impact on our health. So the sudden addition of large and unique stress weakens your immune system and you get sick at the worst possible time.

3) You are going to new areas and being exposed to many new things: I’m not just talking about going to Mexico and running into Montezuma’s revenge; even going to a different region of this country can expose you to many different small circumstances, and when they combine they can add up to really hurt your health. The four corners of our country have radically different food habits, climates, bugs and physical situations. When you visit a different area, your body becomes unusually susceptible to problems.  Here are some examples:

  • Different strains of cold and flu bugs.  The east coast is separated from the west coast by large mountains, deserts and the plains. It’s easy to see how there could be small differences in germs that make you more susceptible.
  • Different allergens and insects that you may not even know had an impact on you: Maybe you are adapted to all the plants in Georgia, but the new ones in Arizona set off your allergies and weaken your immune system, allowing you to get sick. There are numerous flowers, trees and bushes that only grow in certain areas of the country. Being exposed to them for the first time can send you into a spiral of bad health. A good example is Valley Fever which is a fungus that only exists in the desert southwest, and yet it can make you very sick. West Nile Virus is another health problem that is transmitted by mosquitoes in only a few parts of the country.
  • New weather patterns that you aren’t adapted for: things like unusual heat or cold, or extreme humidity or dryness. We all know how much more likely we are to get sick at the change of seasons and taking a Road Trip from Arizona to Washington state, Maine or Florida can present an even greater change of temperatures and humidity in an even shorter period of time.
  • Higher elevation: If you lived in Florida all your life, don’t think you won’t be affected by a visit to 10,000 feet in Colorado, because you will. That constant lack of oxygen is going to search out every weakness in your immune system and health and tremendously aggravate it.

Taken from http://inspirationboost.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/257-Health-and-Wealth-Quotes.jpg

4) We start eating much worse than usual: It’s just so easy to open a bag of chips or cookies and munch away while you drive or stop by fast food and eat it for the whole trip. Sometimes you eat local cuisine but the foods are very unusual for you and they create problems. To be honest, if it’s a short trip it isn’t going to have much of an impact on your life, but the longer the trip the more important that you take care of your health by eating well. Because vandwellers are literally on the road for the rest of our lives, eating healthy is critical for us!

5) We give up healthy lifestyle habits: Hopefully, you have some healthy lifestyle habits that relieve stress and give you exercise, all too often in the rush of travel or the small space of a van we drop those things like a hot potato. Sometimes they are much more difficult to do so we let them slide by the wayside. That’s a bad idea! Here are some examples of what I mean:

  • Taking vitamins and supplements: Because of space and time limitations, you may find yourself dropping a healthy regimen of supplements.  It’s just one more nail in the coffin of getting sick.
  • Walking, running or biking: In the rush of a road trip, these great habits that are critical to our health are too often lost. Can you hear them pounding the nails?
  • Exercise (aerobics, weights, and martial arts): I’ve known a few people who carried weights in their van, but not many. Maintaining this habit takes some determination.
  • Making Connections with others: Many studies have shown that being alone is not good for our health. And yet connections with others is one of the first things that goes for travelers and vandwellers.
  • Serving others: Again, nothing is more important to your health than a sense of meaning and purpose. You need it every bit as much as you need food, water or shelter!
  • Meditation: whether formal or informal a quiet time alone in yourself has proven to be great for your health physically, mentally and emotionally.
  • Yoga or Tai Chi: Millions (billions?) of people around the world can testify to the health benefits of these ancient practices. In the Orient, many companies pay their employees to do it because in the long run their better health saves the company money.

All of these things greatly increase our health, and without them, we can easily get sick

Conclusion

When you add all of those small health problems up, they become much greater than the sum of their parts. It’s no wonder that we so often get sick on a Road Trip. It’s hard to see how we ever avoid it!

In my next post I’ll share some ideas I think will help reduce our risk of health problems on the road.

Bob
About

I've been a full-time VanDweller for 12 years and I love it. I hope to never live in a house again!

39 comments on “Staying Healthy on the Road: Why Travelers get Sick
  1. Avatar jim says:

    Very good post Mr Bob as you said seen like any time i travel i get a bad cold,I’ve all so learn not to eat big meals while traveling lots of people stop and eat a big meal and have no way of working it off so it just goes to fat on you.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Jim, it’s amazing how often we get sick when we first go on the road. A whole new life requires a whole new way to eat and take care of ourselves.
      Bob

  2. I was sick much less often when I started working from home. I was exposed to far fewer people (and the people those people were exposed to, and so on). I’m in proximity to even fewer people than that now that I’m a vandweller.

    Also, it was very easy to eat (and overeat) when I lived in a building, in a city. Food was all around, easy to get and easy to prepare. I also had more money so I could spend a lot on too much food. Now it’s an effort get or prepare food, so I snack far less, don’t eat just because I’m bored, don’t plop down in front of the TV absentmindedly stuffing my face.

    As for making connections to other people being good for our health, that might be true for extroverts, but you and I are introverts, Bob, and being around people is stressful, exhausting.
    Al Christensen recently posted…There arose such a clatterMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Al, I agree that too many people is very stressful. However, I’ve found a few deep friends are very important to me. The amazing thing is, this is the first time in my life I ever really had any.
      Bob

  3. Avatar Richard says:

    Bob, out of curiosity, where do you shop for your prescription drugs. I am trying to determine what makes more of a cost-effective choice while I am on the road for long periods of time. I would think Walmart pharmacy might be the most suitable for convenience and cost but I don’t know. Have any recommendations?

    • Bob Bob says:

      Richard, I go to Algodenes Mexico in the winter and buy a years supply of my prescription meds. They don’t require a prescription and they are so cheap I can afford to do it. I’ve been doing that for the last 5 years now.

      If that isn’t an option for you, then yes, Walmart is the way to go. But do some comparison shopping, sometimes, rarely, Walgreens or CVS will beat them. Also, check with chains like Sams Club and Costco. Consider Kroegers Stores also. They bought up a bunch of West coast chains and they are now everywhere. It’s hard to beat Walmart, but worth the time to double check.
      Bob
      Bob

  4. I had worked hard and long to finally develop healthy habits and lose weight, and they all went out the window when I started vandwelling almost a year ago. For some reason, I was under the mistaken impression that vandwelling would just naturally lead to even healthier living. WRONG! The temptation of fast food compared to the hassle of cooking in the van defeated me, and I’m still struggling with it. I gained back almost all the weight I had lost and I felt terrible. Last spring in New Mexico, I caught a doozy of a flu. I was lucky to be visiting Silvianne Delmars at the time. She brought me hot tea and soup and took care of me. Allergies knocked me for a loop in Texas. And in Mammoth Lakes, violent altitude sickness made life miserable for a few days. Thank goodness another friend, Linda May, was nearby with soup when I was able to keep something down. You are so right about connection! Without my friends, I don’t know what I would have done!
    LaVonne Ellis recently posted…In Praise of Dirt RoadsMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      LaVonne, hopefully with time you will settle down into a routine and your life will stabilize. Nearly all the vandellers I know become healthier in the long run, but I’ve know quite a few who were more sickly in the beginning. It’s been a rough year, but hopefully out of it you have laid a foundation of learning what doesn’t work and making connections.

      Hang in their, hopefully it will get better. Last year was for making connections and this year will be laying a solid foundation of healthful habits.
      Bob

      • Bob, I should have added that in spite of those problems, my health has improved overall since I started vandwelling. I credit lack of stress, lots of fresh air, and (almost) daily walks. I’m stuck in the city for the time being, though, and that’s a big stress. I will be very glad to get out of here and get back to AZ for the winter!
        LaVonne Ellis recently posted…In Praise of Dirt RoadsMy Profile

        • Bob Bob says:

          LaVonne, I love the mountains and forests and I can’t live without them. But I also am greatly looking forward to geting back to the desert. Next month it will start cooling off enough to consider going back!
          Bob

  5. Avatar Calvin R says:

    Commenting in order to follow. I never thought of this one because I get less illness on the road, not more. I think it’s because I travel very cheaply, which means I eat what I always eat. Indeed, I bring most of it with me or shop at chain grocery stores. When I eat out on the road, it’s usually healthier than my home diet and comes from truck stops or where the locals (in the USA) eat. Also, I get around destinations and stopovers mostly by walking. I have ways to meet people and relate to them, too.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Glad it worked so well for you Calvin. Ultimately, every full-timer I know has become healthier than ever because of this life. I think that’s because of the dramatic decrease in stress. But most often it is in the long run, and fairly often there is a time of transition when they are less healthy because of the added stress of totally changing your life.

      Maybe I have you confused with someone else, but didn’t one of you run into bad allergies in Arizona the first time you went out? That was a long time ago so maybe I have you confused with someone else.

      I’ve found most full-timers do exercise more, usually walking.
      Bob

      • Avatar Calvin R says:

        I ran into unexpected allergies in Arizona the second time I went there (Tucson). They were less severe than what I have back home in Ohio. I imagine the dust contributed something to that situation. We left Tucson because my wife missed her grandkids, which has developed into a dysfunctional situation I have no part in today.

        I have since been treated for what turned out to be asthma with some allergies. My allergies today are not limiting, but I still have to pay attention to irritants–scented products and other things that trigger the ashtma. That one centers on products rather than locationss.

  6. Avatar Rob says:

    Traveling food…

    Taking time to stop & smell the flowers on the way anywhere has been hard for me to do.
    When I get into the “I’m going there” mind frame getting “there” is the goal. Old habits come back and taking time to stop and smell the roses on the way is tossed to the back of the mind.

    I just finished the drive from Iowa back to Washington and you did hit the nail on the head about it being easier to open a bag of chips & munch (or stop for fast food) than stop & fix a ‘proper’ meal of some sort.

    It all ads up!
    Rob recently posted…Adventureland workcamping review, season 2My Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Rob, I found that for me it was a long transition where I threw off societies chains and lived free. Every day of your life you were told to be a good productive member of society, a working drone and all of a sudden you are not.

      So I found part of me kept wanting to work and felt guilty if I wasn’t. I suspect that is part of what is going on with you. Your old conditioning is telling you to produce no matter what, so you are knocking off items on your bucket list as a form of duty, not from joy. I think that is really common and why most full-timers calm down the second year. By then the conditioning has worn off and they can finally relax.

      From then on they go where they want to and take their time rather than go because they “should!” Societies demands are hard to throw off, give it some time.
      Bob

  7. Avatar DougB says:

    Nice article! Not to disagree with authoritative studies, but the day I hit the road ended the usual coughs, colds, flus, psychosomatic ailments, and all but one minor Rx. For me, the “i” in “illness” is not isolation, it’s immersion and irritation. Most folks need frequent social contact to stay unstressed or undepressed, and want formulas to follow. Then again, most folks don’t share the same shoe size, so one man’s truism may be another man’s anathema.
    DougB recently posted…The Aurora FrankensteinMy Profile

    • Bob Bob says:

      Doug, I think you and I are very much alike in our need for alone-time and in fact, I agree totally with your point.

      What we have here, is a failure to communicate!! I’m reversing societies meaning for “social” and “isolation.” I found for me that when I lived in a house, I was totally isolated even though I was surrounded by people. They were ghosts I had little or no genuine connection with.

      As a vandweller, it is the opposite! I have very few people around me, but I have true and deep connections with many. You are one of them! I haven’t seen you in over a year, but I still fell connected to you. We write sometimes here, and I may see you this winter (I sure hope so!). And if we do get-together this winter, I expect it to be like we had just seen each other a few days ago, we will still be connected across time and space. If we don’t, meet, then hopefullly we will soon. And even of it is a few years, I still expect there to be the same connection.

      I can’t explain that, but I have dozens, maybe hundreds of relationships like ours. Each contributes to my life and ends my isolation.

      I am alone more than ever, but for the first time, I’m not isolated.
      Bob

  8. Avatar Openspaceman says:

    Bob_

    I’ve found drinking plenty of water and taking the time at the health club every morning to stretch and consciously focus on the back, neck and shoulders is key. I have a high top roof but still can’t stand up straight in the van so got to reach for the sky every morning…don’t want to be a hunchback.

  9. Avatar ILDan says:

    I would love to learn more about living “on the road” with illness, specifically chronic and long-term illness. Do you know anyone in this position? Questions include: Medical equipment and power requirements, physical limitations and setting up camp, proximity to doctors and regular visits, and in my case, Crohn’s Disease and its inherent bathroom dilemmas.

    Is it possible? Most of my disability check goes to insurance/medical costs and my schedule is tied to monthly infusions.

    Thanks for your time and perspective.

  10. Avatar Bob .B says:

    Hello Bob, I’ve been following your blog for about a year, it’s entertaining and informative. On the subject of health and travel I would like to ask, Dose anybody use juicers or blenders to make healthy vegetable drinks drinks on the road? I’m 60 and started doing this a year ago and walking 5 to 10 miles a day. This has improved my health tremendously. However it takes a lot of time and on a resent road trip I wasn’t able to stay on plan and the result was weight gain. The draw backs that come with travel and this diet are. 1. you need a good supply of fresh vegetable and fruit. 2. clean up is a huge task and 3. storage,I make a 4 day supply, about 3 quarts and I needs to refrigerate. I would be interested if there are people out there that have solved this problem. The obviuse answer is to just eat a lot of raw fruit and vegetables. But here is the deal, I would have to eat a pound of carets , two apples , 2 pounds of spinach , 3 oranges, 1 lemon and what ever else that is in the frig. That’s a lot of chewing! I need to hit the road and start living, but I would like to figure this out. My hat is off to the one with the courage to live like you do. Thanks Bobby b.

  11. Avatar VtChris says:

    Bob, My experience has been just the opposite…..I got healthier when I started traveling, especially full time! I am more active, I eat better, I have more community, I still find time to volunteer, I have lost weight, I am less stressed. I would think this would work for everyone, but maybe I am wrong. Never really thought about it before. Of course, even before RVing I made it a habit of never touching my face unless I had washed or somehow sanitized my hands first…..over 10 years now without a cold or virus.

    • Avatar Bob .B says:

      Thanks for your post, I’m still living in a house with a fully stocked frig and pantry, that and my weak will most likely is the problem. Congratulation on a cold free ten years.

    • Bob Bob says:

      VtChris, I’m afraid I said it badly. I agree, every vandweller I know got healthier the longer they did it.

      This post was for short term trips or new vandwellers. I’ve known a lot of vandwellers who were sicker in the first 6 months and then got much healthier.

      Judy has been very healthy since she has been a vandweller, but under the stress of the Alaska trip she got sick for the first time.

      Sorry for the confusion.
      Bob

  12. Avatar jim says:

    I’ve seen on tv where out your way you are having big dust storms and lots and lots of rain hope you all are making it ok how that new best friend doing aka cody sorry for getting off track of post

    • Bob Bob says:

      Hi Jim, no big deal about staying on topic, I’m glad to help.

      There is a huge storm hit CA, AZ and NV. The video on the news of the tremendous flooding and damage is amazing! We have got almost no rain. I can’t understand it! It’s everywhere around us and almost none here. Don’t know why, but I’m really glad!

      Cody has become a great dog but he has one major flaw, he is anti-social with other dogs. When I got him he was surrounded by other dogs and very friendly and they said he was very friendly with other dogs, but when I got to my friends Steve camp, he is a terror. Nothing I can do about it now except keep him on leash around other dogs. I’m hoping being surrounded by dogs at RTR will help socialize him, but we will see.
      Bob

  13. Avatar Ron says:

    If you are subjected to second hand smoke pay attention to when you start sniffling or getting stuffed up. Stay out of it and see if your problems subside. I believe a lot of people dont make the connection.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Ron, that’s a great suggestion. As a boondocker I simply am not exposed to smoke at all. In fact I consider the far better quality of my air to be a major reason for my increased health.

      Cities are an offence to the earth and even to the materials that we we distort to make them. Live in a city? Plan on being sicker.
      Bob

  14. Avatar jonthebru says:

    Only semi-relevant; when I retired all my psychosomatic aches and pains disappeared. At this point I volunteer on the board for a non-profit radio station with many participants. There was a conflict a month or so ago and the manager who does a great job stated unequivocally that he was quitting at the end of the day. (The conflict wasn’t about me, I don’t start fires, I put them out.) Damn, if all my old aches and pains instantly reappeared ! I’m not kidding, it was amazing… and painful. No bull, other board members talked to him, he didn’t quit and all my pains went away within minutes of my hearing that news. We all need to respect what our bodies tell us.

    • Bob Bob says:

      jonthebru, I greatly appreciate hearing that! I totally believe that stress is one of the single greatest threats to human health and our society creates a huge amount of stress for us.

      If you can just break out of that mold, your life will improve in every way.
      Bob

  15. Avatar Ming says:

    how long did you take for this trip, and how long would you have taken to have a nice, relaxed and not stressful one? Have you ever done entire long road trips at a slow and relaxed pace? It’s something I’m working toward myself. I’m trying to calculate how long I would need for a trip across the continent and back while avoiding grueling driving stretches.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Ming, I don’t think I have ever taken a long, slow leisurely trip. They are almost always a rush across areas I’m not interested in to get to where I want to go. Once there, I find it pretty easy to slow down, stop and absorb that area. So on the Alaska trip we rushed most of the way but we still stopped for a week in Zion and a week in Grand Tetons.

      We are all so different there is no one speed to travel off. Maybe you like cultural oddities which are everywhere across the country and stop for them often. They mean nothing to me so I just drive until I come to the next gorgeous place of natural beauty which is my only goal.
      Bob

  16. Avatar Patrick says:

    I never got sick because of the road trip. It is just the opposite and I have not sick once in last 20 years plus and I couldn’t believe it myself. The keys is balance (following the principle of Yin and Yang) between Exercise, eat healthy foods,and live happy life. Balance between known and unknown is the way. Road trip take me to unknown places like the America and China is known place where I call home. Like nature thing changes, now I call America home and China is unknown place. Without sick, you will never understand healthy. Sick is just reminder us to live healthy.

    • Bob Bob says:

      Patrick, I am a huge admirer of the Tao Te Ching and consider the concept of Yin and Yang as a foundation of my life. I consider this post a call to enter into the natural normal flow of life and I’m pointing out that by breaking out from the flow the disharmony created introduces sickness.

      Thanks for your comment! Very good reminder
      Bob

  17. Avatar Ming says:

    lots of good points in this post, BTW. Our pooches and the beautiful places we camp in sure help us keep up the physical activity part of the prescription.

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