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These days you can disembark a river cruise fitter, healthier and calmer than ever before, finds Sally Macmillan.

Worldwide, billions of dollars are spent wellness, a relatively new movement that encompasses everything from superfood smoothies to meditation and yoga, healthy sleep habits and immersion in the great outdoors – ever heard of forest bathing? The wellness trend might be largely driven by millennials, but fitness-conscious travellers of all ages are looking for more engagement – physically, mentally and socially – with the places they visit.

River cruise companies are embracing wellness big time; ramping up onboard fitness classes, introducing new spa treatments, adding vegetarian, vegan and healthy-option dishes to menus, and offering a much wider range of active shore tours.

Pump it up

While river cruising has long been associated with sedate walking tours led by lollipop-bearing guides or lengthy bus trips through picturesque countryside, change is afoot.

Cycling is a great way to get around in Europe – there are lots of excellent cycling paths and many ships carry bikes for passengers to use on independent or guided group tours. Every Scenic ship carries about 30 e-bikes as well as regular bikes, so you can pedal faster and further and design your ride to be as challenging or relaxing as you like. Segway, jogging and hiking tours are also being added to the mix, and kayaking is another fun way to keep fitness levels up while getting an up-close perspective on riverside destinations as you paddle.

This year, Avalon introduced onboard Adventure Hosts, who help passengers arrange activities such as cycling, hiking with Nordic poles, kayaking or signing up for a complimentary fitness class. Adventure Centres stock all the gear you need for exploring on your own – bikes, helmets, binoculars, maps and day packs – plus fitness kit such as yoga mats, stretch bands and FitBits.

Avalon’s Adventure Host program complements the line’s Active Discovery itineraries on the Rhine, Danube and Rhone rivers, as well as three new types of excursions: Classic, Discovery and Active.

Class action

Fitness centres on river ships are usually small but on newer ships they are outfitted with sophisticated TechnoGym equipment such as stationary bikes and Kinesis walls, so there’s no excuse for missing out on muscle maintenance. Sun decks are perfect for jogging or circuit training, and pools, while usually minuscule, can always be used for DIY aquarobic sessions.

Extra motivation is increasingly supplied by onboard wellness or fitness coaches who lead exercise, meditation and relaxation classes. For example, Scenic’s Wellness Coaches run daily scheduled activities that are tailored to suit various fitness levels, including new classes in relaxing yoga, invigorating sun salutations and the Five Tibetan Rites, AKA the Fountain of Youth.

Spoil yourself

Spa treatments on river cruises used to be limited to a basic massage but now you can indulge in an array of therapeutic offerings, particularly on bigger, newer ships.

Uniworld’s Serenity River Spas and Crystal’s Life Spa and Salons have the most extensive spa menus and most spacious treatment rooms; Scenic is the only river cruise line to install salt-therapy lounges, and these are exclusive to its ships sailing in France. Salt therapy is said to improve respiratory function and cleanse your skin – lying down for half an hour in a darkened room while soft music plays is relaxing in itself, so any other results are a bonus.

Paddock to ship

Eating healthily is an integral part of the wellness trend and chefs on river ships are perfectly placed to source seasonal local produce and incorporate the freshest ingredients in regional and classic dishes.

Vegetarian options are available across the board; you might have to put in a special request for vegan, salt-, fat- and gluten-free food but these days most menus feature plenty of creative vegetarian mains, delicious salads and healthy, simply prepared grilled fish and meat dishes.

Avalon runs its Avalon Fresh dining program in partnership with two Austrian chefs, brothers Leo and Karl Wrenkh, who are renowned for creating vegetarian haute cuisine at their restaurant and culinary school in Vienna. The focus is firmly on taste – Leo says as a chef he’d never cook anything just because it is healthy. The popularity of their cuisine speaks for itself – you can indulge and feel good about it.

And isn’t that what wellness is all about?