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Health & Fitness My eight-week challenge: How to keep up the workout while on vacation

There is nothing more motivating than hitting your stride in your exercise routine.

By week five of my journey to build more muscle, increase my endurance and improve my cardiovascular health, it felt like I was settling into a new balance. Drills were becoming easier, even as Sarah Daly, my personal trainer from the Toronto YMCA, upped the ante and made them more challenging. My flexibility was growing; the downward dog was no longer a position of agony. Even getting up at 5:30 a.m. for my once-dreaded 6 a.m. workouts was feeling slightly less torturous.

Being caught up in the excitement of my new-found fitness, I barely noticed that a 10-day vacation was sneaking up on me. And for the first time in my life, I was fretting about my free time. I knew my healthier regime was still in its infancy; I worried the slightest interruption would surely undo much of my progress.

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So after a strength workout with Daly, we sat down and came up with a plan. I was fleeing to my cottage, and from a fitness perspective that presented some pros and cons.

Con: Being on an island, over 10 km from the marina, which was nearly 50 km to the nearest small town, meant no gyms.

Pro: I had endless stretches of pristine lake to explore by kayak, canoe or swim stroke.

Con: The island was only a few acres; all of it was unforgivingly hard Canadian Shield. That ruled out any kind of running.

Pro: The nights were peaceful, the days calm, meaning I could get some much-needed rest.

Daly stressed that getting rest was integral to my fitness – she encouraged me to use this as an opportunity to let my body repair itself. But she also knew I'm stubborn and restless, even on holidays. So she issued the challenge that every day I was to swim further than the last. Day one was 150 metres of swimming. By day three, I'd be at 450 metres. By day 10, 1,500 metres.

That loosely structured swimming routine settled many of my fears about relapsing into couch-potatoness. But Daly was frank about the possibility of losing ground.

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"You will lose fitness when you stop working out, but how much you lose depends on how fit you are, how long you have been exercising and how long you stop," she said. "But whether you're a beginner or a long-term exerciser, a week of rest can be very beneficial."

After the first few days, I still worried that the swimming wasn't enough, especially since I was never breathless at the end, unlike after a run or a kettlebell class. But I did note a dull ache in my arms and lower back toward the end of my laps on day six.

And when I crawled out of the water after completing 1.5 km on day 10, I realized that I had been swimming continuously for about 40 minutes – easily the longest I had ever swum. When I came back to the city, I was refreshed and reinvigorated.

"Often a short break from your exercise program is exactly what's needed to keep you motivated," said Daly.

Between the swimming, the serene canoe trips and the vigorous day trips in the kayak, I managed to strike a balance I didn't think was possible: Be active and restful.

I probably gained a little bit of fitness from my week of swimming, but I also gained something more valuable: knowledge. Vacations don't have to be inevitable moments where you fall off the wagon. They can actually be subtle opportunities to strengthen your fitness through new, gentler activities.

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Follow Madeleine's journey every Monday in The Globe and Mail.

Vacation is no excuse to throw in the towel. Here, some holiday fitness suggestions from personal trainer Sarah Daly.

Going to a cottage

Enjoy and explore your environment by going for a walk, run, hike, bike, canoe, kayak or swim. Get everyone moving with a badminton or volleyball net set up on the lawn, or Frisbee in the lake.

Going to a big city

Discover the city on foot, bike, horseback or by water if possible. When driving or using public transit, park further away or get off a stop early and walk the rest of the way to your destination. Get to know the city as a local and use your YMCA membership to access any YMCA gym in Canada. Sign up for a class or activity that you might not normally do at home and meet people while trying something new.

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Going on a road trip

What's the first thing you do after stepping out of a car after a long drive – for most people, it's stretch! Every time you stop to eat, fill up for gas or ask for directions, get out and stretch your entire body. Choose places to dine outside of your hotel and walk to and from, walk around the neighbourhood, take advantage of a hotel gym or pool, or perform some body weight exercises and stretching in your hotel room.

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