Fitness for Drifters

(in conjunction with the book The Anatomy of Escape)

Have you ever tried travelling with a set of kettlebells? Me neither, and why the heck would you when you can do away with all equipment, all gyms, and all classes and adopt a fitness for drifters approach.

Being a perpetual drifter and minimalist presented me with the challenge to develop a regime or perhaps ritual that would take care of my fitness needs without sacrificing the aforementioned lifestyle choices. Spending most of my days on the move with no more than forty belongings to my name meant that orthodox solutions to the fitness question were not suitable. Challenges I shared with many who live like this included:

  1. Nomads/drifters don’t want to carry unnecessary luggage, let along dumbbells.
  2. Regular relocations make it difficult to lock down a gym, running track or other fitness facilities.
  3. When travelling there is always something better to do than exercise.
  4. Without a routine, it is difficult to make time to exercise.
  5. And shared with many non-nomads, is the problem of overload. There’s so much information out there, it’s sometimes difficult to choose what to do.

Through a process of muddling and refinement over several years, I’ve bedded down a daily ritual which solves all of the above problems and based on the results that I see and feel is an ideal regime of fitness for drifters.


The Fitness for Drifters Solution

The key features of the Fitness for Drifters solution are:

  1. It requires no equipment. Optionally you can use a yoga mat or towel, but it is not essential. All resistance training uses the weight of your own body.
  2. It requires no specific venue. It can be done in a park or hotel room, you just need some flat floor.
  3. No motivation or willpower is required and excuses are eliminated by leveraging the power of habit.
  4. No routine is required. The ritual is attached to an already well-established habit – sleep. It is done immediately and almost unconsciously as soon as you wake up.
  5. It includes exercises for your mind, energy, breath, flexibility, core and general strength and fitness.


The Fitness for Drifters Approach

I explain in greater detail about the principals that underpin this approach in my book, The Anatomy of Escape. In it, I discuss the logic behind the phases, why mornings are the best time to exercise and the psychology and practice around forming habits. For now, I will only briefly summarise them.

The Phases

The program consists of four fifteen-minute phases – one hour in total. The phases and the lengths are fixed but the contents can vary, gradually improving over time. You’ll add a repetition here, do a deeper stretch there or swap out an entire exercise as you find better ones. Aside from the obvious benefits of improving the content of the workout, the variation allays boredom and limiting the entire process to one hour and no more means you’ll dread it less than a longer workout. The phase sequence has a symbiotic flow with the progressive awakening of the body in the morning, starting very passively and becoming more active. It also makes sense from the perspective of warming the body up, each distinct phase warming you up and leading into the next.

Why Mornings are Best

A fixed early morning kick-off, 5am in my case, is the best time of day for a ritualised fitness regime for a number of reasons:

  1. With a regular, fixed starting time each day, your body will be able to adjust and this will support the habit-forming process.
  2. It’s the first thing that happens in the day so there is unlikely to be something else booked, reducing the likelihood of making excuses.
  3. I know it’s the only thing I must do every day, for my health and to support the habit, so I want to start and finish as early as possible. I don’t want the requirement lingering all day.
  4. In the early morning, I’ll have an empty stomach, resulting in a higher likelihood of fat being my fuel source.
  5. Exercise ignites metabolism, which ideally, I’d have heightened during the day rather than at night when I’m contemplating sleep.

Forming Habits

I seem to be quite adept at forming bad habits. Whether it’s biting my nails, drinking beer and coffee or leaving the toilet lid up, I’ve formed these habits with ease. But we don’t talk about the good habits and there are many of those. If I could think of one single thing I could do for myself, it would be to do this workout every day. I don’t want to be disciplined or use willpower, that’s too hard. So why not turn it into a habit? On average it takes about 66 days to form a habit.[i] So don’t think about this as being forever, you won’t need willpower forever, just 66 days and then habit takes over. Then you’re home and hosed and you can move on to another beneficial habit.


The Fitness for Drifters Workout

Phase 1 – 15 minutes of Meditation

Don’t drink coffee as soon as you wake up – it’s too brutal for your system and sends the mind a bit scatty during meditation. Instead, try a hot concoction without caffeine. I’ll make a cleansing, invigorating brew with hot water, two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar (cleansing and mildly awakening), the juice from half a lemon (vitamin C, antioxidants and skin care) and half an inch of ginger (soothes the stomach and intestinal tract and has anti-inflammatory properties), sliced.

This timing works well as the events and noise of the day have not yet had a chance to fire up yet. I meditate at home in the dark to avoid distractions. I have used guided meditations with smartphone apps like Headspace and Insight Timer, where I simply wake up, drink a tea, put my headphones in and start. Currently, I am experimenting with Zazen meditation and hopelessly pondering the meaning of Zen Koans.

Immediately after meditation and as I start Phase 2, I’ll have an instant espresso shot so by the time I need the boost, in about twenty minutes, the caffeine is coursing through my veins.[ii]

Phase 2 – 15 minutes of breathing, warmup and Qi Gong

These exercises transition the body from relaxation in Phase 1 to the more strenuous movements in Phase 3. They are done slowly and mindfully with the attention on the breath. An introductory course in Qi Gong along with YouTube instructional videos may be beneficial.

  1. 3 Compressions: Compress all muscles around your bones, then relax
  2. 3 Minutes of bodily bouncing and shaking meanwhile…
    1. Qi Gong Inner Smile
    2. Qi Gong Sexual Reflexology
    3. Qi Gong Acutapping – From below belly button to top of abdominals and back, and then kidneys up and down.
  3. Abdominal Massage
    1. Big breath in, breath out hard and push fingers in just above the navel, then same just below the navel, then again lower abdomen X 3
    2. Same for Spleen/Pancreas and Stomach, on LHS of body
  4. Spinal Cord Breathing (Wisdom Qi Gong)
  5. Rotations
    1. Interlace fingers and massage back of neck
    2. Neck stretches, left-right, side-side, forward-back
    3. Shoulder Shrugs
    4. Shoulder, rotate, then with arms out front, above, side
    5. Yi Jin Jing (dịch cân kinh) 100 Arm Swings
    6. Waist Twist, Hips Static
    7. Qi Gong Pelvic Twist (Beat Organs) – Small->Large
    8. Qi Gong Hoola Hoop/Hip Twist – Small -> Large
    9. Qi Gong Rainbow – pulling the arm up and across and can lift the foot
    10. Windmill with thumbs locked arms straight keep head b/w arms
    11. Hamstring Stretches
    12. Standing Quad stretches
    13. Knee Twists
    14. Knee swings/Feet/Hands

Phase 3 – 15 minutes of Pilates and yoga

This is where you might start to break a sweat, but it still consists of slow movements, deep stretches and the attention on the breath. My current focus is on core strength using Pilates back-centric movements and some additional Yoga moves for overall flexibility. Introductory courses in Pilates and Yoga along with YouTube instructional videos may be beneficial.

Phase 4 – 15 minutes of Bodyweights and HIIT

Phase 4 is a combination of bodyweight resistance training and High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). By this stage, I would have a sweat up, but nothing like it will be like in 15 minutes. I am at my most awake, warmed up and stretched out. I love and I hate this phase. I find it the hardest but it is so short and effective that I look forward to it. The exercises in this phase tend to change the most, usually with an additional rep added here or there or a new exercise that is more compound in nature. The first 10 minutes are single exercises using bodyweight and the last 5 minutes is a killer circuit which gets the blood pumping and really finishes me off.

Each Circuit below is done once, not quite to failure:


Circuit 1 Circuit 2 Circuit 3 Circuit 4
Push-ups Wide-arm push-ups Pommer Horse Presses Spiderman Push-ups
Squat Press 1 Legged Pistol Squats Backward Lunges Goblet Squats
Inverted Shoulder Press (against a wall or tree) Inverted Shoulder Press (against a wall or tree) Inverted Shoulder Press (against a wall or tree) Inverted Shoulder Press (against a wall or tree)
Pull-ups (Using a branch or doorframe) Pull-ups (Using a branch or doorframe) Pull-ups (Using a branch or doorframe) Pull-ups (Using a branch or doorframe)

The following exercises are done back to back in a circuit, with 1 minute between circuits.

  1. 20×3 Mountain Climber (Inside, Outside, Cross)
  2. 10 Burpee Push-ups
  3. 10 Bear Crawls
  4. 10 Tuck Jumps


And wrapping it up…

After the workout is completed I’ll jump into whatever water is nearby, be it a river, ocean or lake, or if I’m room bound, I’ll take a cold shower. And then, of course, there is diet. This is the topic of another article, but I follow a vegetarian diet based on the self-experimentation I conducted and wrote about in The Consumption Cleanse. As I’ve tailored this ritual to me and made it a daily habit, which anyone can do, I no longer see health and fitness as a chore. It requires no willpower and allows no excuses. It is just something that happens when I wake up each day.