By Erik Marcus
This guide offers broad coverage of vegan fitness, with a look at nine of the most popular activities. I’ll explain everything you must know to take your physical fitness to the next level.
Getting sufficient exercise doesn’t have to be unpleasant or something you dread. It’s probably much easier than you realize to get the physical activity you need.
The Benefits of Vegan Fitness
Being vegan can give you a real edge when it comes to health and overall well-being. But you will miss out on these advantages if you ignore fitness and live a sedentary lifestyle.
Fitness isn’t optional, and the payoff for avoiding a sedentary lifestyle is multifaceted. You’re likely to get better sleep and a healthier body weight. Your mood and energy levels will improve, plus you’ll face fewer health risks, including diabetes. Cellular aging can slow dramatically as fitness levels increase. There’s even evidence that good fitness may prevent aging-related declines in mental capacity. Perhaps most importantly, basic fitness can reduce aches and pains and help you to feel clearer and happier day-to-day.
How much time and commitment does it take to reap the benefits of improved fitness? Surprisingly little. The Mayo Clinic says that just 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise delivers substantial benefits. That’s barely 20 minutes a day doing something as easy and accessible as brisk walking. What’s more, if you do something aerobically rigorous, Mayo says you only need 75 minutes of exercise a week.
The Emotional Benefits of Exercise
If you’re prone to depression, you have an extra reason to pay attention to fitness. A number of studies have linked working out to better emotional well-being. One review of 25 studies found that, “Overall, exercise had a large and significant effect on depression…”
With that in mind, there’s a wonderful saying worth bearing in mind: “You’re just one workout away from a better mood.”
Activities to Improve Your Fitness
There’s no one right way to get fit or stay in shape. The best advice is to pick an activity that you truly enjoy. That way, you’ll never consider exercise a chore.
Let’s look at some of the most popular ways to get fit. Click any of the links below to skip ahead to our coverage about that activity.
- Walking and Hiking
- Jogging and Running
- Weight & Resistance Training
- Chi Gong and Tai Chi
- Office Fitness
Near-daily practice of one of these activities is, all by itself, sufficient to lift you out of a sedentary lifestyle.
There’s probably no easier exercise than walking. If your home has a park or hiking trail nearby, or other access to nature, you’ll have an extra incentive to take a daily walk. Walking is great for your cardiovascular system, especially when hills are involved.
Depending on where you live, you might choose to do something I call “destination walking” that gives you an additional reason to get your daily walk in. Is there a coffee shop, post office, or library about twenty minutes by foot from your home? Just make a daily visit part of your routine, and you’ll be banking forty minutes of walking each day. All by itself, that daily walk will lift you out of the sedentary lifestyle category and double the Mayo Clinic’s minimum fitness recommendations.
At the extreme end of walking is ultra-long distance hiking. Two of the crown jewels of this pastime involve walking the entire length of the Appalachian or the Pacific Coast trails (3500 kilometers and 4265 kilometers, respectively). This sort of hiking is commonly called “thru hiking” and vegans are very well represented at the top levels. Here’s a page devoted to vegan thru hiking.
I often walk more than 150 kilometers a month. While I’m glad to get the exercise, I’m more motivated by the clear thinking and improved state of mind these walks deliver. Søren Kierkegaard expressed this perfectly:
Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.
For added peace of mind, hike in nature rather than in urban areas. Even if you live in a city, you can probably route much of your walk through a beautiful park.
Jogging gets your blood pumping in a way that walking won’t. But you’re more likely to get injured. And if you’ve got an underlying cardiovascular condition, long distance running can lead to an enlarged heart.
Many universities, as well as high schools in affluent towns, will have a track with a rubberized surface. These are worth seeking out, since they reduce the pounding that your joints take. Plus, if you run at a track, you’ll remove yourself from the hazards and exhaust fumes of car traffic.
Most running shoes are made with suede or leather, but it’s easy to find a vegan pair. Saucony makes a line of running shoes, in both men’s and women’s styles, that are vegan and exceptionally well-made.
The main drawback to walking and jogging is that neither works the muscles above your waist. Some enthusiasts therefore use cardio dumbbells, which typically weigh about a kilogram each. These weights can enhance your overall fitness significantly. They’ll make your walking or jogging a much more complete exercise, burning more calories and stimulating your cardiovascular system while toning your arms.
In many respects, swimming is a better exercise than running. Many people consider swimming to be the best form of exercise there is, and they have a strong case. There’s no pounding or wear and tear on the joints. Between shin splints, knee, and ankle problems, runners constantly get injured, while swimmers rarely suffer injuries. Swimming is also more meditative, what with being immersed in water and only hearing muffled noises. However, swimming is one of the few exercises that are not weight bearing, so for better bone health you’ll want to supplement your swimming with some kind of resistance exercise (see the Weight & Resistance Training section below).
Really, though, the main problem with swimming involves the water itself. Salt water pools offer the ideal swimming environment, but they require a lot of time and money to maintain. It’s unlikely you’ll have access to one, since nearly all gym and school pools use chlorinated water.
Chlorine stings your eyes and goggles are leaky and uncomfortable. If you swim often, pool chlorine wrecks your hair (you can always identify the guys on school swim teams by their awful hair.) Even if you take a long soapy shower after your swim, the chlorine will stay in your pores. Then if you sweat later on, you’ll catch a whiff of chlorine. I admit it: I’m a hater. As far as I’m concerned, if you can’t get salt water, the best use of a swimming pool is for skating.
You can avoid chlorine by swimming in lakes or rivers, but then you’ve got to contend with cold water, snapping turtles, snakes, pointy rocks, creepy aquatic weeds wrapping around your ankles, random floating things, and whatnot. And in tropical fresh water, you’ve got hazards like alligators, water moccasins, leeches, and even piranhas. Ocean swimming trades these icky and scary things for other life-threatening hazards like rip currents, rogue waves, jellyfish, and sharks.
But again, swimming is among the finest forms of exercise. So if you can evade or surmount these problems you’ll experience great benefits.
Bicycling is excellent for your health—as long as you don’t get killed or maimed doing it. It’s undoubtedly the riskiest of all the activities mentioned here. I gave up riding bikes years ago after one too many close calls with an automobile. Technology will soon bring us self-driving cars that will make it safe to venture out on a bicycle again. But until that day arrives, we’ve got drivers texting on their phones while eating ice cream cones.
In the United States, more than 700 cyclists die each year, and at least 50,000 are hospitalized (the true number of significant or serious bicycle injuries is undoubtedly much higher, and may amount to half a million Americans a year). While far less risky than skiing or snowboarding, the chances of suffering serious injury while bicycle riding shouldn’t be minimized. Plus there’s the insufferable apparel: many bicyclists wear those tight black lycra shorts plus garish neon shirt combos.
With those criticisms out of the way, there’s a lot to like about cycling. Bicycles are not just an excellent way to increase fitness, they are also a quick and inexpensive mode of transportation. In many cities, getting around by bike is almost as quick as a car. Plus, you don’t need to deal with auto insurance, expensive repairs, monthly payments, or parking hassles.
Types of Bicycles
If you’re looking to couple your transportation needs with a little exercise, a cheap steel-framed commuter bike can meet your needs nicely. Plus, these inexpensive bikes are unlikely to be stolen, especially if they’re a little rusty. If you live in a place without hills, you might even consider a single speed cruiser-style bike. Cruisers are like longboards; they aren’t all that practical, but riding one inevitably makes you happier.
If you take up cycling to get serious exercise, you should get a serious bike. Your local bike shop is the place to go. Years ago, bike shops carried every kind of bike, but big-box stores swallowed up the low-end of the bicycle market. Since bike shops now cater to dedicated riders, they offer expert advice to serious beginners.
The style of bike ridden at elite events like the Tour de France is called a road bike, while the bike suitable for long leisurely rides, or multi-day bike tours, is called a touring bike. Road bikes that avid cyclists won’t sneer at start at close to $2000. Scott road bikes start around this price and deliver a great value if you want something exceptional but still cheaper than a decent used car. High end super lightweight road bikes cost $5000 and up.
Weight training is also called resistance training, since pushing back against gravity is only one form of resistance. This sort of training can be casual or intense. Done right, the payoffs of weight training go well beyond bulking up. All exercise reduces stress, but you may find weight training especially effective. There’s just nothing quite like repeatedly lifting a heavy slab of iron until your muscles can’t do another rep. Additionally, any sort of resistance lifting can dramatically strengthen your bones.
For home use, a conventional free weight barbell and bench setup is rarely ideal, since it’s safer to have a spotter for bench exercises. If joining a gym isn’t an option, and you want traditional bench-style workouts, consider investing in a BowFlex or SoloFlex machine, or just use dumbbells rather than barbells.
Bodybuilders have always loved dumbbells, since they’re convenient and allow a great range of motion. Lately, kettlebells have leapfrogged dumbbells as a favorite piece of gym equipment. Weight training enthusiasts often consider kettlebells ideal for endurance-based strength workouts involving fluid motions.
Recommended Equipment for Resistance Training
Don’t worry too much about whether you should choose dumbbells or kettlebells—either will give you excellent results. There’s no shortage of advice online that’ll simultaneously be useful, conflicting, and telling you whatever you want to hear. To avoid going down that rabbit hole, consider just getting a good book on dumbbell or kettlebell training and ignore any other advice you see.
If you’re contemplating taking up weight lifting, it makes sense to buy your equipment used. Because of its heft, weightlifting equipment is often the first thing people get rid of when they decide to leave town, and you can often buy used weights in like-new condition for pennies on the dollar. I once used Craigslist to score a used Soloflex for about $150, then sold it after a few years’ use for exactly what I paid.
The poor man’s way to enjoy the benefits of resistance training isn’t with weights, but with an inexpensive set of resistance bands. You can buy a nice set for $30 or less. These bands let you do a huge variety of exercises that give you benefits comparable to weight training. Unlike barbells and dumbbells, resistance bands won’t build much bulk, but they’re excellent for increasing strength. Fitness bands can also improve bone health just like free weights and any other form of resistance exercise. Frequent travelers love fitness bands, since they fit conveniently into a suitcase and weigh almost nothing.
Many workout routines are boring, and if that’s a disincentive for you to exercise you ought to consider climbing. Of all the ways to stay in shape, climbing may deliver the greatest mental challenges. If heights bother you, many cities have indoor climbing gyms with a bouldering wall. These walls are only a few meters high, and have a soft mat on the floor that you can drop onto anytime. So for indoor bouldering you don’t need ropes or any special equipment other than chalk and climbing shoes. Each of these bouldering walls will have dozens of different routes, with each handhold or foothold marked with colored tape indicating the route’s difficulty. Climbing is humbling—most people take years before they can complete any route beyond intermediate.
Most climbing gyms also offer 30 to 50 foot “top roping” walls, which rely on having a partner do the belaying while you climb. If you both know what you’re doing and pay attention, this kind of climbing is remarkably safe even though it involves potentially lethal heights. Done right, indoor top-roping is certainly a safer and more controlled kind of climbing than anything available outdoors, where even world-class climbers perish with disturbing regularity.
Climbing works muscles you didn’t even know you had and offers a nice balance between strength and cardio-based training. Of all the forms of exercise I’ve ever done—and I’ve done everything mentioned in this article—nothing makes me feel better than an hour spent climbing.
At least half of climbing depends on gaining leverage from precarious footholds, so you absolutely need specialized climbing shoes even if you’re a beginner. You can rent these shoes from your gym, but since they are worn without socks and are super tight and perspiration-inducing, I would no sooner rent climbing shoes than a toothbrush. Nearly all climbing shoes are made from leather or suede, but Evolv and Five Ten make vegan footwear.
As with climbing, yoga offers a near-perfect balance between strength and conditioning. Granted, many forms of yoga don’t appear all that challenging, but there are styles (particularly Ashtanga, hot yoga, and Anusara) that demand ludicrous amounts of exertion. Injuries in yoga are surprisingly common. If strenuous exercise isn’t your thing, look into yin yoga, which involves deep yet gentle stretches held for long periods of time.
If you’re going to take up yoga, you must learn it from a qualified teacher. Small classes are ideal because, especially at first, you’ll be doing all your postures wrong. You’ll therefore benefit from a setting where the teacher has time to offer constant corrections. Yoga’s all about proper alignment, and it’s impossible to get things right if all you have to go on is a book or a video. Once you have a good teacher, here’s a fantastic poster (created by my yoga teacher) that demonstrates the fundamental postures.
Since, at its heart, yoga is a spiritual practice, you may ultimately find yourself having sublime experiences and a steadiness of mind even if your initial goal was to achieve a tight butt. A devoted yoga practice delivers more than just fitness and flexibility. You’ll enjoy ripple effects that extend to many other parts of your life.
Never have I encountered an activity that delivers so great a payoff for such little time and effort. Both Qi Gong and Tai Chi are fundamentally energy practices. They’ll enhance your range of motion and bring a sense of balance into your life. These activities aren’t oriented toward aerobic or strength conditioning, but they will certainly keep you from being sedentary.
And unlike yoga, you can learn chi gong or tai chi entirely from video, with no need for personal instruction. I enthusiastically recommend Lee Holden’s videos. Start with his Qi Gong for Self Healing and his Qi Workout AM/PM. You can purchase both DVDs for the price of a couple fitness classes. They’re all you need to learn the fundamentals of establishing a solid Qi Gong practice.
None of the things I will suggest in this section are likely to fully cover your fitness needs. But having a few pieces of equipment in your office can break up the day’s monotony and significantly increase your overall activity level. Plus, a little physical activity can work wonders to reduce the stresses of a busy day.
My favorite thing to do during my workday is to combine a pair of devil sticks with the Pomodoro technique. Basically, you set a timer and work for 25 minutes without allowing any interruption—that especially includes refusing to check email! When the timer rings you reward yourself with a mandatory five-minute break (cutting the break time short is as big a no-no as not doing the entire 25 minutes).
Equipment for Office Fitness
My break of choice is flipping around my devil sticks for five minutes. You need practically no space to use devil sticks, and they’re phenomenal for improving hand-eye coordination. Also, unlike sports like tennis or bowling, both sides of your body get equal attention. If you’ve never tried devil sticks before, a YouTube video may convince you to order a set.
Other ways to make your work day a little more active is to keep dumbbells, resistance bands, or a stress ball by your office chair. You can even replace your office chair with a pilates ball, although you’ll need one that’s the right height. Having to keep your balance while working strengthens your abdominal muscles, while making it practically impossible to slouch. I wrote my longest book, Meat Market, while sitting on a pilates ball. If you like the idea of using a chair that demands balance, you might alternately decide to invest in one of these crazy looking ball chairs.
Books for Vegan Athletes
For whatever reason, when it comes to endurance running taken to the absolute extreme, vegans tend to dominate (and they also tend to write books on the subject!) Rich Roll and Scott Jurek are two of the world’s most accomplished ultramarathoners, and they are both longtime vegans. Roll’s book is Finding Ultra, and Jurek’s is Eat & Run.
Books like these target serious fitness buffs, and might seem like overkill if your typical exercise session involves jogging twice around the block. So for the rest of us, Ellen Jaffee Jones wrote a book devoted to mere mortals. Ellen hasn’t run any 100-mile races, but she has run more than 100 five-kilometer races. So she definitely embodies a moderate yet dedicated path that will resonate with a great many vegans who seek a more moderate level of fitness.
For a more scholarly take on the topic, pick up a copy of Plant-Based Sports Nutrition by Larson-Meyer and Ruscigno. While the book may be overkill for the casual fitness enthusiast, serious athletes will find it invaluable. Alternately, consider Matt Frazier and Robert Cheeke’s The Plant-Based Athlete.
Finally, if you want to jump-start a fitness-oriented lifestyle, check out Rip Esselstyn’s Engine 2 Seven-Day Rescue Diet. You’ll learn how to prepare a variety of super-healthful meals and snacks that take just minutes to make.
If you walk, jog, or swim, fitness trackers can help you achieve your goals. Many people find these trackers provide an extra level of incentive to not to flake on their daily routine.
These trackers do more than record your physical activity. Many can also monitor your heart rate, thereby enabling you to stay in the zone where you’ll maximize conditioning. Wearing your band overnight can also identify sleep problems.
Tracking Fitness with Phones & Watches
Perhaps the best fitness tracker in existence is the latest Apple Watch. But you can get most of its tracking features from a Fitbit, which can sell for one-third the price. And if you can forgo heartbeat and sleep monitoring, you can get everything else for free from a smartphone app. Plus, smartphones can track your walking or running route and thereby give you a much more accurate measurement of speed and distance covered than do trackers that lack GPS.
Both iOS and Android have a number of free fitness apps. The Google Fit platform is a free download for Android phones and wearables that tracks speed, distance, route, and even elevation. Installing Google Fit on my phone gave me the gentle encouragement I needed to bump up my usual walking speed from dawdling to zippy. That has in turn quadrupled the “heart points” Google Fit awards me during my morning walk.
Fitness Trackers for Swimming & Bicycling
Swimming lends itself beautifully to fitness tracking, but you’ll of course need to choose a waterproof model. Here’s a roundup of all the top waterproof fitness trackers.
Among bicyclists, fitness tracking is likewise taking off. If you bike regularly, consider buying a handlebar mounted unit. These devices track everything imaginable—distance, altitude, cadence, and more. Some even do navigation, although you might prefer to simply add a separate mount for your phone. Here’s a review of the top bicycle fitness trackers.
Eating and Sleeping
The three pillars of a healthy life are fitness, good nutrition, and sufficient sleep (a happy state of mind probably trumps all of this, but that’s another discussion for another time). Once you’ve incorporated sufficient physical activity into your life, it’s wise to also make sure you’re getting high-quality nutrition and plenty of sleep. So let’s end this presentation with a look at both of these things.
Vegan.com offers a comprehensive page on vegan nutrition that covers all the main things you need to know. Its author, Ginny Messina RD MPH, is co-author of Vegan For Life, which is basically a book-length version of her nutrition page. Ginny has devoted her life to studying vegan nutrition, and she has authored or been cited in numerous key papers on vegetarian diets.
The Importance of Getting Enough Sleep
Now let’s finish by taking a quick look at sleep. Many people get inadequate sleep, but don’t seek to remedy the problem.
How do you know if you are getting sufficient sleep? Since people require vastly different amounts of sleep, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. A good starting point is to simply notice how you feel in morning. Upon waking up, do you feel rejuvenated, enthusiastic, and full of energy? Or do you feel like you should scraped out of bed with a putty knife? If it’s more the latter, why not try to correct matters?
For deeper and more restorative sleep, these habits can make all the difference:
- Never, ever fall asleep with the television on.
- Go to bed earlier.
- Consider adding a meditation practice to your life. Even five minutes a day may help your sleep!
- Avoid alcohol, especially close to bed time.
- Cut back on caffeine, especially if you’re drinking more than a couple cups of coffee or tea a day. And don’t consume any caffeine after lunch.
- Consider purchasing a Fitbit or Apple Watch in order to track your sleep.
If you have trouble falling asleep, or often find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, you’re not alone. Millions of people suffer from these sorts of sleep problems, and oftentimes the underlying causes can be discovered and corrected. Consider reading, The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It.
It’s All About Attitude
You can either look at fitness as something you’ve got to do, or as something you get to do. Finding a physical activity you look forward to doing will inevitably make you feel healthier and happier.
Different fitness regimens work for different people. I’ve flitted from one physical activity to another my entire life, yet there are still numerous activities that don’t interest me in the least. I would pay good money to avoid grappling in jiu-jitsu, swimming in chlorinated pools, or God forbid participating in Ironman triathlons. But each of these activities provides millions of people with joy and purpose, and many participants would likewise be bored silly by the things I love to do—long hikes, devil sticks, yin yoga, and indoor bouldering.
So why not try a few of the fitness ideas covered here, and see which ones you like? Joseph Campbell’s maxim to follow your bliss has never applied to anything more strongly than physical fitness. No single activity appeals to everybody. So try a bunch of things until you find something you love to do, and then set aside time each day to do it.