Vegan Fitness Guide: Fun & Easy Ways to Get in Shape

Get the most out of your healthy vegan diet by learning the basics of good fitness
Last Updated: August 28, 2018

Being vegan can give you a real edge when it comes to your 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’ll 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 appears to slow dramatically as fitness levels increase. There’s even evidence that good fitness may prevent the declines in mental capacity associated with aging. 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.

Since you can reap major rewards without living in a gym, let’s look at the easiest ways to get fit.

Walking and Hiking

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 there are hills 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 visit part of your daily routine, and you’ll be banking forty minutes of walking each day. Just on the strength of that daily walk alone, you’ve lifted yourself out of the sedentary lifestyle category and doubled 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 KM and 4265 KM, 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.

Jogging and Running

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 be away 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, inexpensive, and exceptionally well-made.

The main knock on walking and jogging is that neither works the muscles above your waist. Some walking or jogging enthusiasts therefore use cardio dumbbells, which typically weigh about a kilogram each. These light 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.

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 respected ultramarathoners, and both are longtime vegans. Roll’s book is Finding Ultra, and Jurek’s is Eat & Run.

Matt Frazier has run 100-mile ultramarathons, and authored a great book called No Meat Athlete. The book’s first 80 pages are entirely devoted to providing vegan dietary advice for athletes. The book also features some terrific vegan recipes intended to maximize athletic performance. If you like those recipes, check out his companion volume The No Meat Athlete Cookbook.

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 anyone ready to make a moderate commitment to healthy living and eating. 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 high but not fanatical level of fitness.

Finally, if you want to make a temporary commitment to fitness-oriented diet, 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.

Swimming

In several respects, swimming is even 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 is not weight bearing, so for better bone health you’ll want to supplement your swimming with some kind of resistance exercise (see the section titled Weight & Resistance Training 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 swimming, the chemicals stays into 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, when it comes to a method to increase fitness, swimming is unbeatable. So if you can deal with or bypass these problems God bless.

Bicycling

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 apparel to contend with: 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. Often, for just getting around town, a 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. A steel-framed commuter bike that might cost barely $100 from Wal-Mart can meet your needs nicely, plus you won’t be risking much if it gets stolen. If there aren’t any hills near you, 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 want to get into cycling for serious exercise, you should get a serious bike. Your local bike shop is the way 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 & Resistance Training

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 super serious. 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 equipment in gyms. People into weight training often find kettlebells ideal for endurance-based strength workouts involving fluid motions.

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 decide to sell 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 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. These can be purchased for $30 or less. These bands let you do a huge variety of exercises that give you many of the benefits of 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 find fitness bands ideal, since they fit conveniently into a suitcase and take up virtually no space.

Climbing

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 be the most mentally challenging. 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 need to climb for years in order to 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 you can get 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 or so 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 offer several vegan models.

Yoga

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 essentially 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 many of the most common 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. With a serious yoga practice, you’ll find the teachings have ripple effects that extend well beyond fitness and flexibility to many other parts of your life.

Chi Gong and Tai Chi

Never have I encountered an activity with so great a payoff for so little time and effort expended. 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. In most cases, you won’t get a whole lot of physical or strength conditioning, but a daily practice is nevertheless more than sufficient to avoid the pitfalls of a sedentary lifestyle.

And unlike yoga, you can learn chi gong or tai chi entirely from video, with no need for personal instruction. I can’t recommend Lee Holden’s DVDs highly enough. 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 yoga classes. They’re all you need to go deep into establishing a solid Qi Gong practice.

Office Fitness

None of 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). 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, go watch a YouTube video, and you just might decide they’re something worth taking up.

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 have a pilates ball to sit on and decide this sort of thing works for you, you might decide to invest in one of these crazy looking ball chairs.

Fitness Trackers

If you walk, jog, or swim, a fitness tracker is an effective way to stay accountable to your goals. Many people find these trackers provide an extra level of incentive to not to flake on their daily routine.

Fitness trackers can 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.

Perhaps the best fitness tracker now made is the latest iWatch. But you can get most of its tracking features from a Fitbit or Jawbone, which sell for one-third the price. And if you can forgo heartbeat monitoring, you can get everything else for free from a smartphone app.

You can also go cheap and use your phone for fitness tracking. Both iOS and Android have a number of free fitness  apps. The Google Fit platform works on phones and wearables to keep track of speed, route, and even elevation. 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.

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 just be better off adding 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 good 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.

We’ve published 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 our nutrition page that goes into far greater detail on all the key topics. Ginny has devoted her life to studying vegan nutrition, and she coauthored of several of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ position papers on vegetarian diets.

Now let’s finish by taking a quick look at sleep. Problems with sleep are widespread, but frequently ignored.

How do you know if you are getting good 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 the first 30 minutes after waking up. When  you wake 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 set about seeing if you can make improvements?

A few key pieces of advice for better sleep:

  • 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 in the hours before going to sleep.
  • 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 getting a Fitbit or iWatch in order to track your sleep.

If you have trouble falling asleep, or find yourself wide awake 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. If your sleep could use improvement, 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 like and 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, and there are plenty of ways to be active that don’t resonate with me at all. 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 we’ve covered, and see which ones you like best? Joseph Campbell’s maxim to follow your bliss has never applied to anything more strongly than physical fitness. There is no single activity that’s perfect for everyone. So try a bunch of things, find something you love to do, and set aside time each day to do it.