It’s an oft-quoted “fact” that cruise passengers put on a pound in weight per day. While those determined to get their money’s worth can eat non-stop – cooked breakfasts, mid-morning snacks, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, late-night nibbles – the image of ships full of overweight cruisers is not entirely accurate.

With all that inclusive food and drink, a cruise might not seem the best choice if you want to get into shape, but it can be one of the healthiest holidays around. Menus list low-calorie dishes alongside hearty steaks, and lunch can be salad with everything from quinoa to bee-pollen grains and a raft of tasty protein options. Then there are state-of-the-art gyms, fitness classes and jogging tracks on board, plus hiking, cycling and kayaking ashore.

So there’s no excuse for not keeping fit on a cruise – except for the fact that a holiday is meant to be time to relax. Here’s how to do both. 

At a glance | How many calories do cruise passengers consume?

Once, while dining on a cruise, I declined dessert. Nothing untoward there, you might think?

Apparently not. To emphasise what an oddity I was my waiter brought me a plate with the word “nothing” inscribed across it in chocolate.

Many of us lean towards excess on holiday but it’s fair to say that cruising is synonymous with food. Among the many preconceptions about cruise holidays is the notion that weight gain is inevitable. And with good reason. Not only is the majority of food served on board included in the price – meaning you can over-indulge without ever opening your wallet – the buffets on large ships are open 24/7.

A couple of eggs, bacon and sausages and a hash brown and you have notched up 700 calories before the day has begun. And don’t fool yourself that eggs Benedict is the healthy option: the eggs might be poached instead of fried but factor in the bacon, muffin and Hollandaise sauce and you’ve notched up at least 418 calories.

Can’t choose which main course to have at supper? No problem; the waiter will bring both choices. And maybe you’ll just about manage the cheese plate after scoffing a chocolate soufflé groaning under its own calorie count. Missed dinner? Head for the midnight chocolate buffet.

True, many ocean and river line lines now offer excellent salads, low-calorie dressings, “light” lunch options, round-the-clock fruit and low-calorie and diabetic desserts, not to mention impressive gyms. Yet even in more health-conscious times cruise companies celebrate over-indulgence.

When Princess Cruises launched Royal Princess in 2013, the cruise ship named by the Duchess of Cambridge, it proudly unveiled the first pastry shop at sea. And it will take a strong soul to resist the temptations of master patissier Eric Lanlard, who will be raising the calorie count on board P&O Cruises’ new ship, Britannia. One slice of his Black Forest Gateaux and you’ve consumed 804 calories. And that’s before any afternoon-tea sandwiches (300 for a smoked salmon sandwich) and scones and cream (268).

The promenade on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis and Allure of the Seas feature donut, cup-cake, ice cream and burger outlets. A burger and chips in Johnny Rockets fast-food joint on Royal Caribbean International’s ships? That’s a whopping 1,330 calories (for the basic ‘original’ burger), or more than 2,450 if you can’t resist the onion rings and a Coke as well.

And then there’s alcohol to consider. A poll of 3,000 Britons in 2014 suggested that an average cruise passenger consumes 42 bottles of beer, 16 cocktails, seven bottles of wine and two glasses of champagne on a single voyage. A bottle of wine is around 622 calories, a G&T 179, a bottle of beer 142 – you’re looking at more than 13,000 calories during a single trip (or even more if you opt for that fruity Pina Colada cocktail – 645 calories – instead of a G&T).

1. The mind, body and soul wellness kick

Looking after mind, body and soul is a good thing, but a salad-filled, alcohol-free trip, plugged into iTunes to while away the hours on a treadmill, can rapidly extinguish the holiday spirit. But what if everyone around you is in the same boat, so to speak, and being abstemious when it comes to desserts and glasses of fizz? With companions of like mind, suddenly,  the wellness kick becomes that bit more enjoyable. 

Yoga cruises on Star Clippers’ three tall ships are so popular that it has practitioners on 12 cruises between May and November this year. Seabourn is offering free, daily meditation and yoga sessions based on the teachings of American integrative medicine guru Dr Andrew Weil. He is lecturing on two voyages in Alaska and the Mediterranean in June and October respectively; at other times complimentary sessions are hosted by wellness experts. 

Tuning into the spirit of the times, Crystal Cruises has a 14-night Mind, Body and Spirit-themed voyage next October with guest instructors and speakers that focus on yoga, Pilates, t’ai chi and general fitness.

We’re tempted by: Holland America Line’s link with O, The Oprah Magazine, which is spreading health and happiness through meditation and t’ai chi on more than 300 cruises in Alaska, Bermuda, the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada and Hawaii. 

A seven-night yoga cruise on Star Clipper with the life coach Allaya Cooks-Campbell on board costs from £1,495pp departing on August 25 2018 (0808 231 4798; starclippers.co.uk). Flights cost extra.

2. Clean eating at the captain’s table

Oceania Cruises, Princess Cruises, Cunard, Azamara and Crystal Cruises all offer healthy option menus that detail fat, carb and calorie content. Celebrity Cruises’ ships have a restaurant called Blu that’s exclusively for passengers in AquaClass spa cabins and serves “clean” cuisine free from heavy sauces and creams.

SeaDream Yacht Club started a vegan trend by serving raw food on its two ships: the food is not actually uncooked, but prepared with raw, organic and vegan ingredients. Oceania Cruises has followed suit, serving more than 250 vegan dishes at breakfast, lunch and dinner on its ships that include everything from Tuscan-style bean soup to quinoa salad and vegetable tartar.

The MSC Cruises Wellness Experience includes a health check with the ship’s doctor and a body analysis with a personal trainer. The price, from £949 per person for a seven-night Mediterranean voyage on MSC Meraviglia departing April 1, includes a keep-fit programme, complimentary laundering for gym gear, “wellness” excursions ashore and access to a healthy menu. Vitamin Bars in MSC’s spas sell made-to-order fruit and vegetable drinks to “cleanse, relax and detox”.

The verdict | MSC’s wellness experience at sea

Fitness trainer Lucy Fry puts the MSC wellness programme through its paces.

A holiday fitness regime without a hint of punishment, dull food or exercise plans? And a personalised mini-bar?

Sounds too good to be true, but that’s what MSC Cruises is offering whether you’re a reluctant exerciser hoping to lose weight, a marathon runner gunning for a new personal best or simply keen to build core strength. And, hurrah, you won’t be spending every hour sweating. It’s much more holistic than that. “Come and try it out! ” said MSC. So I did.

It all begins before you step on board, with “the aspiration finder,” a questionnaire designed to ascertain the motivations of each passenger as well as the type of exercise they enjoy.

After filling this in I received an “aspiration map” recommending a tailor-made programme. Think of it as a recipe for wellness with the perfect blend of ingredients for you.

If it’s balance and power you enjoy, your schedule might include yoga, circuits and indoor cycling.

If it’s “shape” alongside a little movement and sports, expect to mix toning classes with steady-state (maintaining roughly the same heart rate and muscle movements) cardiovascular exercise.

On your first day you’ll have a one-on-one with a Master Trainer for an initial consultation and body fat analysis followed by a chat to discuss any medical issues.

Your unique wellness blend (as outlined on the aspiration map) extends to the food, too, with some receiving more protein-dense meals and others light, veggie-based food. There is no compromise on taste and little chance of feeling deprived as all guests enjoy a minibar stocked with sports drinks.

There’s a complimentary laundry service for your gym gear (an incentive in itself).

Programmes include indoor and outdoor exercise and incorporate the latest equipment, such as the Technogym (official suppliers for the last six Olympic games) Skillmill, a non-motorised treadmill brilliant for sport-specific training and ankle-injury-prevention work.

My verdict? Nobody said keeping fit was effortless, but this wellness experience will make your journey as smooth as it’s going to get.

msccruises.com

River cruise operators Tauck and AmaWaterways both specify allergens in each dish and highlight healthy options. Uniworld river cruises’ menus have “healthy” starter, main course and dessert options.

We’re tempted by: Avalon Waterways offers its river cruisers a vegetarian menu incorporating ingredients sourced from small farms and producers. It’s called Avalon Fresh.

A seven-day Mediterranean cruise on SeaDream 1 costs from $4,626 (£3,420) per person departing October 13 2018. Flights extra (0800 783 1373; seadream.com).

3. Luxury detox spas 

Cruise lines spend millions building luxury spas that are run in partnership with leading health companies such as Steiner and Canyon Ranch. It’s not all about massages – there are facials, and more, for men and women that pamper and polish and help passengers unwind and detox. The first Champneys Health Spa at sea sets sail on the Marella Explorer, the ship joining Marella Cruises’ (formerly Tui) fleet in May. The comprehensive treatment menu includes a special Ocean Spa Face and Body therapy exclusive to this ship. Expect to pay from £55 to £189 for 25 to 80 minutes (in line with prices in Champneys’ land-based spas, according to Tui). 

Regent Seven Seas Explorer has one of the best spas at sea. It’s run by Canyon Ranch and the vast menu offers everything from organic wraps and scrubs to a gemstone anti-ageing treatment and a high-performance men’s facial. A hot-stone massage costs $272. 

River cruise company, A-Rosa has spas on all its vessels. A-Rosa Donna, which sails the Danube, has two saunas, a relaxation area, a massage shower and treatments including facials, body, leg and foot massages, and a Caribbean body scrub. 

Interestingly, as spas enter the mainstream, some cruise lines have begun building them closer to the main public areas, rather than hiding them away on top decks. 

The Canyon Ranch SpaClub on Regent’s ultra-luxury Seven Seas Explorer is on deck five by the coffee bar, and on P&O Cruises’ Britannia it is next to reception where it is far more likely to attract a casual visit.  

We’re tempted by: A spa suite on Azamara Journey or Azamara Quest, which comes with a complimentary evening of champagne, canapés and dinner served by a butler followed by a night under the stars on the spa’s Sanctum Terrace (available to passengers in other cabins for a fee of $395). 

A seven-night Highlights of the Mediterranean cruise on Marella Explorer costs from £874 per person departing October 13 2018 (020 3451 2682; tui.co.uk).

4. Caviar facials and seaweed wraps

In line with these luxurious spas treatments, too, continue to evolve. Celebrity Cruises has seaweed peat wraps to help drain toxins while spa-goers on Cruise and Maritime’s Columbus can be massaged with seashells and indulge in a caviar facial (45 minutes for £68). Fred Olsen Cruise Lines offers a 30-minute “abdominal detox.” Viking Cruises’ ships have a Scandinavian feel that extends to their LivNordic spas. These have a snow room, where real flakes fall each night. 

River cruise line Scenic has salt rooms on vessels sailing the Rhône in France and the Garonne, Gironde and Dordogne Rivers from Bordeaux. The salt is on the floors and walls; sit inside for 30 minutes and repeat each day to improve respiratory function. Many spas incorporate a medi-section offering Botox and other anti-ageing treatments. Anti-ageing electroporation on MSC’s Meraviglia targets wrinkles and fine lines; it costs €219 (£194) for three sessions, while three 60-minute sessions aimed at eliminating stretch marks cost €249. An acupuncture session on board P&O Cruises’ Britannia is priced from £93.

We’re tempted by: The warm and inviting thalassotherapy pool on Viking Ocean is filled with seawater and jets of various intensity and looks on to a relaxing real-fire feature (with pretend flames). Hygge guaranteed.

An eight-night Bordeaux Affair cruise on Scenic Diamond costs from £2,870 per person departing April 21 2018 (0161 236 2444; scenic.co.uk).

5. High-tech gyms and personal training

Most ships have gyms with state-of-the-art treadmills, exercise bikes, weights, Kinesis trainers and the latest TRX Suspension equipment. They’re generally open from early morning until late at night and are free to use. And if you want to inhale the sea air, use the jogging tracks found on the top deck of many ships. Even river-cruise lines, with their streamlined ships, factor in fitness areas on board. AmaWaterways, Scenic, Tauck, Avalon Waterways, A-Rosa and Uniworld all have them. The fitness-shy might be tempted by the two-storey gym with river views on the 180-passenger ship, Amadeus Silver (amadeusrivercruises.co.uk). 

Fitness classes, yoga, pilates and indoor cycling are complimentary on luxury cruise lines such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn and Oceania Cruises. Other companies might charge. NCL charges $20 per session for RYDE spin classes and TRX Suspension training. Four Boot Camp sessions on its Norwegian Escape cruise ship cost $120, including a free inBody composition analysis.

Those who seek professional advice and encouragement can pay for a body analysis and personal trainer. P&O Cruises offers this service for £59 and £47 respectively for 60-minute sessions on both but the services are offered by most cruise companies. 

We’re tempted by: A spin around the ice on the rink’s on board Royal Caribbean’s Voyage, Freedom and Oasis-class ships.

A 14-night Mediterranean cruise on P&O Cruises’ Britannia costs from £1,339 per person departing September 16 2018 (0843 374 0111; pocruises.co.uk).

6. Running tours and guided walks

If you like the idea of exercise but not necessarily within the confines of a gym, why not keep active ashore? 

It’s not as difficult as your might think; Crystal Cruises for example provides jogging excursions in ports including Bergen, Liverpool, Bordeaux, Bar Harbor, Savannah, Monte Carlo and Greenock in Scotland. In Amsterdam, a one-hour jog takes runners along canals, past key sights such as the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank House, and includes a stop at the Waterlooplein flea market. All for $69 per person.

Avalon’s new eight-day Active Rhine itinerary pairs hikes and guided cycle rides with a running tour of Amsterdam. Or cruise the Rhine between Amsterdam and Basel with AmaWaterways to join a five-mile (8km) hike up Holy Mountain in Heidelberg and a 22-mile (35km) guided bike ride from Mannheim. 

There are guided walks in Grenada, Carcassonne and Girona for passengers on Saga Cruises’ 17-night Mediterranean Adventure on Saga Pearl II this year. On board, Mr Motivator (aka Derrick Evans) will be offering advice and passengers can pick up healthy cooking tips from celebrity chef Kevin Woodford. The cruise sails from Portsmouth on April 28, 2018; from £3,014 per person.

We’re tempted by: A guided cycle ride through Austria’s picturesque Wachau Valley on Viking River Cruises’ Danube Waltz cruise.

An eight-day Active Discovery on the Rhine cruise with Avalon Waterways costs from £2,465 per person departing July 15 (0800 668 1843; avaloncruises.co.uk).

7. Spinning, yoga and ‘walking on water’

Crystal has Tour de Spin (a posh name for spinning), pilates and t’ai chi classes – all free. It also has the inspired Walk-On-Water fitness programme where participants trot around the deck wearing weighted vests (weights are between two and 16 pounds and can be increased in half-pound increments).

New this year, AmaWaterways has fitness instructors on six of its European river ships. They will hold stretching, yoga and other classes every morning and afternoon and give talks on healthy eating and relaxation techniques. By 2019 they will be on the entire European fleet.

We’re tempted by: Daily – and free – yoga on the sundeck or a sandbank while cruising the Brahmaputra in Assam between Nimati and Guwahati on Far Horizons’ river ship Mahabaahu.

A seven-day Coastal Classics and Balearic cruise on Crystal Serenity costs from £2,362 per person departing August 12 2018. Flights extra (020 7399 7601; crystalcruises.co.uk).

8. Cruise-and-bike holidays

Active travel company Butterfield & Robinson has river cruise-and-bike holidays on the Rhone, Danube and, new for this year, the Rhine, in Germany. The cruises are run in conjunction with Uniworld. On the eight-day cruise from Basel in Switzerland to Amsterdam daily cycling excursions head into Germany’s Black Forest and along the Neckar River to Heidelberg. 

Butterfield & Robinson also has new one-week river cruise-and-bike holidays on the Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia this year, with boutique cruise line, Aqua Expeditions….