From mealtimes to bedtimes, our bodies and minds like routines. Here, learn why keeping up with your circadian clock is so important and some tips for maintaining routines even while on vacation.

Why do routines matter?

For many people, maintaining routines during a vacation sounds awful. You might be looking forward to turning off your morning alarm, indulging in late-night junk food binges, and spending each day without a care in the world. But it turns out that routines actually play an important role in both physical and mental health.

Northwestern Medicine points out the benefits of routines. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Healthier eating habits. Scheduling both grocery store trips and meals helps you make better food choices. It can also help to ensure that you don’t forget to eat or end up overeating. And if you have a sensitive stomach, eating around the same times every day can help your body know what to expect.
  • More physical activity. It’s easy to stay on the couch (or in your beach chair) if you don’t have a fitness routine. Building in time each day to get moving is the best way to ensure you get the recommended 150 minutes per week of physical activity.
  • Stress management. When you’re stressed out, your mind can lean on its routines to help you stay calm. Without regular routines, it’s easy to spiral into a cycle of anxiety and depression. Traveling can be stressful, and relying on your habits can help you have a more enjoyable trip.
  • Better sleep. Many people have trouble sleeping in a new place. Regular bedtime habits and a sleep schedule can help you get better rest. This means you’ll be mentally sharper, more energetic, and ready to make the most of your vacation.

Tips for maintaining your routines on vacation

So how exactly can you maintain your routines on vacation without feeling controlled by the clock? Fortunately, there are some simple solutions.

Coping with jet lag

Jet lag can throw off even the most carefully crafted routines if you’re crossing multiple time zones. Prepare for your trip by slowly adjusting to the time change before you leave home. Also, adjust your mealtimes by an hour per day based on your traveling direction. If you’re traveling west, go to bed one hour later every night for a few days. If you’re traveling east, go to bed one hour earlier.

When you arrive at your destination, start operating on the new time immediately. Eat at local mealtimes. And give yourself plenty of sunlight exposure during the local daytime hours. Don’t go to bed until it’s nighttime where you are, even if you’re exhausted.

Orienting yourself

Travel can be disorienting even if you’re vacationing in your home time zone. When you arrive at your destination, take some time to get to know the area. Sign up for a walking tour to familiarize yourself with the streets and landmarks. Stop at a local visitor center to learn about the location’s history and culture. Note the locations of restaurants you might want to try or attractions you plan to visit.

Well before bedtime on the first day, set up your lodging to feel more like home. Fully unpack. Familiarize yourself with the TV remote. Make sure your pillows are comfortable. Unwrap the hotel’s soaps or put your own in the bathroom.

The goal is to make everything feel more familiar, from your bedroom to the immediate local area. This will help you relax and settle in, removing some of the stress of the unknown.

Dining options

Part of the fun of going on vacation is trying new foods. But your body will thank you for resisting the urge to overindulge. Plan to eat a mix of fresh, healthy choices, comfort foods, and new delicacies. If you can get a room with a mini-refrigerator or even a full kitchen, staying on track with healthier eating patterns will be easier. But even without these amenities, it’s worth picking up a small supply of your favorite nonperishable healthy snacks.

If you’re getting a lot of exercise, monitor your hunger levels and plan for extra snacks. Eat as close to your regular mealtimes (adjusted for the time zone). Be sure to drink plenty of water, especially if you’re day drinking or working up a sweat.

Physical exercise

Some people are more active on vacation than in their everyday life. If you’re visiting theme parks, exploring hiking trails, or wandering through museums, you might get way more exercise during your vacation. If this is the case, overdoing it is the biggest thing to watch out for. Build breaks into your day for a long lunch or even a nap. Remember to stretch your body before heading out and returning to your room.

If you’re at the opposite end of the spectrum, vacation probably means a lot of lounging around. You might spend time getting spa treatments or laying out on the beach. If this sounds familiar, you’ll need to take active measures to maintain a fitness routine. Consider booking a hotel with a gym and schedule a 30-minute daily workout. Or plan a shopping excursion every couple of days, during which you park the car and walk through several stores in a row. If you have kids, spend some time playing with them rather than just keeping an eye on them from a bench.

Sleep hygiene

Sleep can be highly elusive when you’re traveling. Proactively boost your sleep duration and quality by practicing regular sleep hygiene routines. Do you usually use a sleep mask or a sound machine? Bring those items with you and place them on the nightstand so they’re easy to find when you go to bed. Do you have bedtime rituals at home, such as taking a hot shower or reading a chapter of a novel? Maintain those patterns every night of your trip. They will cue your brain that it’s time to wind down and prepare to sleep.

You don’t have to do precisely the same things on vacation that you do at home. After all, where’s the fun in that? Our bodies and minds, however, thrive on routines. Sticking to some basic patterns while you’re away can help you make the most of your trip and your return thereafter.