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How to Lose Weight on a Cruise: 9 Smart Ways

For cruisers who face tempting buffets and endless desserts, these nine tips reveal healthy dining options and fun ways to stay active while on a cruise.

It's standard cruise-director shtick to joke with passengers on the first day about how much weight they'll gain on the cruise.

Despite the endless eating and drinking opportunities at sea, I was determined not to become another statistic on a 7-night Carnival Splendor cruise to the Mexican Riviera. I challenged myself to lose weight, and by the end of the voyage, I had dropped three pounds -- without completely depriving myself. In fact, I enjoyed wine with dinner and pretty much anything I wanted to eat at lunch. But I did cut back at breakfast and dinner, and I exercised daily.

It turns out that many passengers do gain three to five pounds on a weeklong sailing, according to my fitness instructor Daniel, who works aboard the Carnival Splendor. But by following these nine weight-loss tips, perhaps you can have your cake and eat it, too.

Hit the Gym

To ensure I'd stick with exercising while on a cruise, I varied my daily workouts and kept them short and sweet. I had no interest in spending two hours each day of my vacation in the gym, but I could easily manage 20 minutes of cardio on one of the ocean-facing treadmills or stair climbers, followed by 20 minutes of free weights, arm machines, and sit-ups. All big ships have gyms, and the newest ships are outfitted better than many land-based gyms.

To keep things interesting, one day I signed up for a 30-minute personal training session ($45) to supplement my week's exercise regime. After I warmed up on the treadmill, fitness instructor Daniel pushed me through a series of tough exercises using the weight machines and barbells, plus some mat work.

I also visited the gym for a challenging one-hour group spinning class ($12).

Skip the Elevator, Take the Stairs

I vowed to only take the ship's stairs for the entire week. Only once in the seven days did I take the elevator. I estimate I spent about 30 minutes per day on the stairs -- each flight was 10 steps, and there were two flights between each of the ship's 14 passenger decks.

Stairs work the quads and gluts, and experts say that 10 minutes of stair walking (both up and down) burns about 100 calories.

Each day, I climbed up and down between my cabin on Deck 8, a friend's cabin on Deck 1, and the top decks where the Lido buffet, the gym, Camp Carnival children's playroom, and the pool were located.

Take Advantage of the Ship's Outdoor Diversions

Join the kids in a round of miniature golf (the Splendor, plus many ships in the Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Princess lines have mini golf courses), or go for brisk walk or jog along the promenade deck. Some ships may also have dedicated running tracks. The newest ships are going overboard with even more active pursuits, such as Royal Caribbean's rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, and surfing machines and Norwegian Epic's climbing walls, climbing frames, and trampoline.

Get Moving in Port

Moving in port is another way to exercise without even realizing it. While the Mexican Riviera is primarily about beaches, food, and shopping for silver jewelry, I managed to have a great workout in Mazatlan. On a tip from a guidebook, my companions and I did a 30-minute hike up a steep hill to the El Faro lighthouse on the edge of town for panoramic views of the harbor.

In Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas, we spent one or two hours walking around town while shopping and looking for local lunch venues.

The average person can walk a mile in about 30 minutes and can burn about 100 calories per mile.

Stick with the Spa Cuisine

For breakfast, I stuck with fresh fruit and yogurt. For lunch, ate Indian food or pizza on the ship or splurged on local Mexican fare in port. Every evening, I was dedicated to Carnival Splendor's Spa Cuisine for dinner.

Many ships offer this lighter, healthier fare on the dinner menus in the main dining rooms. On the Splendor, I was pleasantly surprised at how delicious and filling the spa cuisine was. I loved the tomato gazpacho soup (61 calories, 2.5 grams of fat), spinach and Portobello mushroom salad (70 calories, 1 gram of fat), grilled chicken with wild berry sauce (290 calories, 2.5 grams of fat), and steamed filet of salmon with mashed carrots and turnips served with a spicy salsa tapenade (333 calories, 5 grams of fat). The sugar-free "Spa Carnival" desserts were also a treat, especially the coconut cake and pumpkin pie.

Royal Caribbean's light fare is called Vitality cuisine, and its three-course meals add up to just 800 calories or less. Selections might include a papaya and pineapple soup, a grilled seafood brochette, sautéed seasonal mushrooms in a blue cheese sauce, and a strawberry pavlova.

Don't Overdo the Frozen Yogurt

Most big cruise ships have soft ice-cream machines in the buffet restaurant that are often called frozen yogurt machines. I've never seen any dietary information listed on the machines and after watching crew members pour cartons of gelatinous goo into the top of a machine, I think it's best to steer clear. Either way, don't overdo it, even if it is "free."

Stick to Water

Think twice about buying the discount soda cards hawked by many cruise lines (the flat fee includes a re-usable cup and unlimited access to fountain sodas) that will give you the green light to chug gallons of the stuff. Regular, full-sugar soda adds on hundreds of calories a day and the diet stuff is hardly better, with experts saying the added chemicals -- such as caffeine, artificial sweeteners, sodium, and phosphoric acid -- are just as bad (or worse) for you than real sugar.

Go Easy on the Booze

For me, a couple of glasses of wine with dinner is part of a relaxing vacation, so I didn't skip it on my week aboard the Splendor. And yet, I still lost weight. However, I also didn't drink a bucket of beer by the pool at lunch or do late-night shots. Moderation, as they say, is the key.

"If you drink too much alcohol on a cruise, you're more likely to raid the Lido buffet and fill up on bad foods," my fitness instructor Daniel told me. Binge drinking often leads to binging on pizza, burgers, and other fattening foods.

Avoid Spa Treatments that Promise Weight Loss

Besides relaxing massages and facials, many cruise-line spas also heavily promote expensive "ionithermie" treatments that they tout for weight loss. For a few hundreds bucks, mild electrical currents are used on your thighs and tummy in conjunction with clay, algae, and other products to detox and smooth out skin --- this does not lead to real weight loss, just the temporary loss of a bit of water weight.

Losing weight boils down to burning more calories than you consume, so don't be fooled.

Seven-night Mexican Riviera cruises from Los Angeles aboard the Carnival Splendor ( start as low as $439 per person for an inside cabin and $519 for an outside cabin.

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