Staying Fit and Healthy while Living & Traveling Abroad

I’ve lived abroad on-and-off since 2008, and have also traveled extensively during the past seven years.  Most of this time I didn’t have access to a gym, and I certainly didn’t have access to the health food or organic produce I was used to buying in the states.  I got sick – really sick – a few times. My weight went up and down by about 10 kilo. Sometimes I had really bad skin.  I gained and lost muscle tone. So here’s what I’ve learned about staying healthy and fit while living (or just traveling) abroad:

*From my comments below I don’t mean to suggest that countries outside of North America are dirty – it’s just that, wherever you go, it will take your body some time to adjust. Every place has different local bacteria, every person’s body will react to different environments differently.

Staying Healthy

  • When in doubt, boil water before drinking. If you are traveling, invest in a good-quality water filter, or just a small water boiler you can fit in a cup(see side photo). If you want, buy bottled water – but don’t buy the cheapest brand, as not all bottled water is as pure as you might hope.
  • The same goes for washing your face and brushing your teeth.  If you think that the water coming out of your faucet might have toxins (hello, China!), you probably don’t want it touching your face if you have sensitive skin.
  • When you first move to a new place, eat about half a cup of *plain* local yogurt for about the first week.  The natural bacteria in yogurt will help your stomach adjust to local bacteria in fruits and vegetables. If you have a really sensitive stomach, then buying  jar of Tums and eating one a day should also help your digestive system make the transition.
  • If you do feel sick, have some sliced ginger (and maybe honey) in hot water.  Ginger will help soothe your stomach as will (thanks to my old TFC co-worker) regular coca-cola.
  • When you move to a new place, stay away from raw vegetables and peel your fruit for the first few days, until your stomach adjusts to local bacteria.
  • Always wash your fruits and vegetables.
  • Always wash your hands.  If you live in a country where bathrooms don’t always have soap and water (some of the hospitals in China didn’t have soap in the restrooms…even those adjacent to rooms where patients were getting blood drawn), carry around hand sanitizer or moist towelettes.
  • Be smart when eating street food. Avoid oily street food (especially in China).  Drier street food may be perfectly fine, but re-used oil can get rancid, and (again, China) sometimes the oil used isn’t actually fit for human consumption.
  • If you feel under the weather, take an afternoon off.  I developed long-lasting flus/respiratory infections several times because I didn’t take the day of to rest and recover that I needed.
  • Don’t eat so much rice.  Different digestion systems have different reactions to a sudden increase in the consumption of white rice.  For Caucasian females it seems to lead to weight gain and occasionally constipation.  I had one (Welsh-ancestry American) co-worker who had constipation for a month after moving to China.  She was fine after she stopped eating rice every day.  It seems to be something about how fat ‘sticks’ to rice, and how our bodies handle food with a high glycemic index (white rice has a score of 89; pure glucose is 100). If you’re not eating rice, but something is making you sick, try eliminating different foods that you think might be the culprit. Or go and get an allergy test – it’s possible you are allergic to something you ate trace amounts of at home but consume in much larger quantities in your new locale.
  • Experiment!  Make sure you get enough vitamins, fiber and protein by trying new local food.  Local produce is often fresher, and it can be fabulous. (I shouldn’t have pulled up pictures; my mouth is already salivating…)

Staying Fit

For me, this part has been really hard as I’ve always been really active, and yet I haven’t always lived in places where I had access to a gym or other sports that I enjoy.  To top it off, I developed tendinitis in my knee as a teenager and still can’t really run (not that I could really go jogging outside in Bishek or Urumqi, and not that it would have been advisable in the smog of either Beijing or Foshan anyway). We have a gym in Bishkek; though the membership is on par with the US, the scanty equipment is all second-hand from China and none of the ellipticals really work.  So I’ve developed other solutions.

Food:

  • Avoid unhealthy fats (i.e. don’t adapt to all local dietary habits). In Urumqi almost all of my Uyghur students and friends had at least one parent suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other heart-problems. None of them seemed to think anything was remiss.  Almost every Uyghur meal had a large amount of fatty meat, oil from animal fat in cooking, or full-fat yogurt. In Kyrgyzstan, going by the Russian culinary definition, anything doused in mayonnaise qualifies as a salad. Most people over the age of fifty – again, not so healthy.
  • Eat enough healthy fat (especially when traveling!).  I know most available street and snack food is bread-based (especially, especially in Central Asia), but having a stash of almonds, putting olive oil on your salad, or topping your toast (or oatmeal!) with peanut butter can keep you fuller throughout the day.  Bonus: almonds are light, packable, and last [almost] forever, thereby qualifying as the perfect pact food.
  • Oatmeal! Oatmeal is available in almost every country I’ve been to, it’s almost non-perishable and non-destructible, it’s easy to prepare, it has plenty of fiber and protein to keep you full, and there are a million ways you can mix it.  I usually have oatmeal with an egg white and half a banana and a teaspoon of peanut butter in the mornings.  In Urumqi, where we bought delicious dried fruit at the bazaar, I mixed it with almonds and golden raisins. So much better than fried bread or monotonous rice porridge. Also, eggs.
  • Drink enough water.  This may seem obvious, but your body might need a lot more water while you adjust to a new elevation and new climate, or it tries to flush out unfamiliar bacteria.

Fitness

So, you don’t have a gym (or the gym equipment is so old you’re afraid to use it), it’s too smoggy/icy/socially conservative for you to run outside, and the city isn’t safe for biking.  What can you do?

First, (if/when/where possible) walk everywhere. It’s a great way to explore your new environs, understand the (social, geographical) layout of the  city, and get some moderate exercise.  It’s also far less traumatizing than trying to take public transportation when you don’t fully understand the local language.  Other than that…

In Urumqi I eventually joined a flash dance troupe.  Corny, but really fun.  And thankfully the route between my apartment and the practice room actually had kind-of-safe streets for biking. If you are into dance, a lot of gyms across Asia offer dance classes for women (in China it’s because women want to be slim without gaining muscle tone), or you could check the local couchsurfing/internations/Xstuff website to see if there are any weekly salsa or ballroom dance get-togethers.

If you aren’t into dance, frisbee is a fantastic option, provided you have access to the corner of a soccer field or parking lot. Extremely light and packable, easy to play with only two people, superb social tool. Some cities have Couchsurfing-organized weekly (open) ultimate frizbee games.

However, if you don’t have any space for exercise beyond your living room – yoga, pilates and free weights. I’m really not a huge yoga fan, but last fall I had the ‘brilliant’ idea of searching on youtube for some pilates videos (before you chuckle – I had lived in China, where youtube is blocked, for about four years, and before that youtube was mainly a platform for music videos and silly cat compilations).  As you’ve probably guessed, there are thousands of videos out there, from fantastically funny Jane Fonda masterpieces #JaneFondaHair (which are probably more valuable for their entertainment factor…) to more modern genre-crossing workouts.  LivestrongWomen has a varied collection of workouts from different fitness trainers.  Some of the better collections of workouts I’ve found include ToneItUp (pilates-free weights-interval blend), FitnessBlender (Cardio/Interval Training), and Tara Stiles (yoga).  Some people really enjoy Blogilates, but I feel as if I’m watching a thousand hamsters explode into pink fluff cotton candy. It’s obviously a little difficult to coordinate correct position, counting reps, and intelligent conversation, but (thankfully) if you don’t like the chatter (or cringe every time you hear the word ‘booty’) you can turn off the volume on any of the videos. However, it *is possible* to stay fit without having any more equipment than possibly a yoga mat and a set of weights.

and…Random Little Handy Tricks to Keep You Sane

  • Buy a good-quality tightly-sealed thermos or water bottle.  Bring it everywhere. Same with packages of tissue.
  • Photograph/scan all of your important documents and keep them in a photo album (I title mine ‘Organizational’) on your phone. Much better than potentially losing your passport, and you never know when you might need your medical information or residence registration number.
  • If you’re moving somewhere new, read blogs written by expats already living there.  If they haven’t already mentioned it, ask them something like ‘What are 10 things you can’t find in X that you wish you had bough beforehand?’. It’s really hard to find not-nescafe coffee in most parts of China outside of the major cities; Kyrgyzstan has a dearth of good-quality cold-weather ware despite frigid winter temps. It’s hard to find women’s shoes above a size 39 and men’s above a size 42 in many parts of Southern China and SE Asia (same with clothing above a size US S/M).
  • If there’s a certain pen you like or electronics you are bringing, make sure you have enough ink refills, extra batteries, etc…
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