It can be quite a challenge to keep fit as an expat. It’s difficult enough for most non-expats to make the time for physical exercise, but when you’re living in another country, things tend to get a little more complicated. Cultures can be drastically different in their approaches to physical activity and fitness – you may find yourself in a largely sedentary culture, or one where the most popular modes of physical activity don’t appeal to you.For many people, walking a substantial portion of the distance to and from work helps to burn calories on a daily basis, but as an expat, the location that you’re living in may not be conducive to walking. The same goes for cycling – many cities in the world are just not bicycle-friendly, and it’s too dangerous to be cycling anywhere. Expats in rural locations may not have a local gym even if they want to join one, and in other locations, gyms may be an expensive indulgence.
We’re now four months into the new year; by now, most people who made health-related New Year resolutions have quite a clear idea of how successful they’ve been – often, not very. However, if you’re one of those people, don’t worry. There’s no rule that says you can’t make another resolution, or that you need to wait till next year for it. Here are a few suggestions for getting fit without going to the local gym and in spite of all the challenges of expat life.
Understand the basics of diet, exercise, and fitness
It’s important for everyone to have a good understanding of how to stay healthy. This isn’t the place to go into great detail, but in short: balance the calories you’re eating and the calories you’re burning; at the same time, don’t obsess over calories and remember that not all calories are equal (100 calories of pasta is not the same as 100 calories of grilled chicken breast); make small, manageable, and incremental changes rather than attempting to keep to grand, life-disrupting resolutions; and focus on what your body can do rather than what it weighs.
If your basics are wrong and if you have misconceptions about how these things work, you’re quite likely to take the wrong steps and either see no results or hurt yourself. So first of all, educate yourself a bit, and while doing so, make sure you go to reliable, scientifically-backed sources. Also remember that you don’t need to be an expert and you don’t need to know everything, at least not right away – just get a few basic concepts right, and build on them over time.
Manage your food intake
Before we move on to suggestions for burning calories, we need to briefly touch upon calorie intake. For many expats, this is where the problem lies – familiar foods are often difficult to find, and in some places, for some expats, managing a healthy diet based on local foods can be difficult for a variety of reasons. As a result, many expats start to eat poorly, relying on fast food and snacks. However, it’s important to make the effort to maintain a balanced and nutritious diet, and also to be open to change. If you can’t find your favorite foods locally, look for substitutes. Explore the local cuisine and research it to find out the nutritional values of different local foods. The local food will still be made up of carbs, fats, and protein – you just need to work out how to get the right balance in a way that’s practical and enjoyable.
Incorporate physical activity into your daily routine
One of the best things you can do is to incorporate some sort of physical activity into your daily life, rather than making time for a separate new activity. The easiest and most accessible option is to walk a little more than you already do. If you can, walk to work, or at least walk to your local bus or railway station. Consider getting off one stop early on the way to work or on the way back home, and walking that extra distance. Take the stairs wherever you can, instead of the lift or escalator. When running local errands, choose to walk or cycle instead of using your car. All of these are things you need to do anyway – you only need to incorporate physical activity into them and allow for a little more time than they would otherwise take.
Try a local sport or exercise
If you are interested in sports, find out what’s popular among the locals, and try to join in. You don’t necessarily have to join a club – simply look out for a neighborhood game of soccer, cricket, or anything else, and ask the players if you can join them. Even if it’s something you only do on the weekend, it’s a pretty substantial, intense workout that you get once a week. You can also find out about forms of exercise that are popular locally. These may be traditional to the region or they may simply be modern styles that have gained popularity among the locals. For example, in India try to find a yoga teacher; in Brazil look out for a capoeira class; and in Korea consider learning taekwondo. In addition to keeping fit, these will also be great ways to experience local culture and make local friends.
Dancing is one of the most enjoyable ways to stay in shape, and there are many different styles to choose from. From more traditional dance forms like salsa to modern, fitness-focused forms like zumba, and from relatively easygoing but formal dance forms like ballroom dancing to more intense, freewheeling forms like hip-hop or jive, the options are endless. You can also find out about local styles, such as Bollywood if you’re in India, or bolero if you’re in Latin America. Many of these styles are now known across the world, but if as an expat you can learn a dance in the country of its origin, it’s an opportunity you shouldn’t miss. Even if you don’t want to spend the money or commit the time to a regular dance class, it’s something you can simply do with friends, with your partner, or even by yourself. If nothing else, simply put on some music and dance while you do the housework!
Run, jog, or cycle
We’re now getting into activities that you need to dedicate time to and that you do for their own sake rather than as part of your daily chores or as cultural experiences. However, it’s also important that you enjoy these activities. For most people, approaching an activity purely as exercise, with no element of fun, inevitably means that they won’t be able to sustain it for too long. However, if you enjoy running, jogging, or cycling, or if you enjoy parks and greenery, this option may work for you. It’s also good to have a non-weight-related goal to look forward to, so consider training for a marathon. You don’t need to win, you don’t need to do the entire event, and you don’t need to set or break any records, except your own. If you can’t manage a single mile today but are able to do five miles at the end of a year, that’s enough of an achievement. Always consider safety of course – public parks are not necessarily safe places everywhere in the world. Also consider pollution – the air in cities like New Delhi and Hong Kong is incredibly polluted, and it’s not advisable to exert yourself outdoors in these places.
Swimming is another great option, and one that many people enjoy. The sense of weightlessness in the water is a great boost for people who otherwise find that their weight discourages them from taking on activities like jogging. Swimming is also easy on the joints. And if you don’t know how to swim, remember that it’s never too late to learn! In many parts of the world, swimming isn’t a default experience for children, and it’s not unusual to find learners who are middle-aged and older at the local pool. Of course, finding and joining an accessible and clean local pool can be a problem in some places. Hygiene is particularly important for an activity like swimming, and for outdoor pools, pollution is another concern. On the other hand, some expats are lucky enough to live in places where the local air and water are clean and there are nearby places to swim in. Find out what’s around you and make a decision accordingly.
Hiking is a great way to get some exercise, escape from the stresses of modern life, and explore the natural beauty of your new home. In many parts of the world, hiking trails are easily accessible even if you’re living in a city. Countries like Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and the US have well-known hiking culture and communities, but even Hong Kong, which is usually assumed to be a completely urban space, has a few hiking trails not too far from the main residential areas. You’ll find hiking trails in almost any country in the world, except that the trails may not always be accessible enough for you to hike on a regular basis. However, if they are, and if you enjoy hiking, consider making it a regular weekend plan.
Work out at home
We’re now down to the last option: proper exercise, simply for the sake of building strength and stamina, and burning calories. Exercise can be fun and rewarding in a different way from activities like sports and dancing. Don’t see it as a chore, and don’t focus on weight loss but on physical achievement – there’s a sense of satisfaction to be found in being able to do more pushups or finish a circuit in less time than you did last month. Also, don’t buy into the popular perception that exercising isn’t much good unless you’re pumping heavy weights at the gym. There’s a lot you can do with just body weight, the things lying around your house, and bit of basic equipment like resistance bands.
In terms of the basic exercises that it’s possible to do at home with no real equipment, these include squats, pushups, pull-ups, lunges, step-ups, and crunches. As you gain strength and confidence, you can make the exercises more challenging by adding weight to them. If you want to, you can buy weights such as dumbbells or wrist and ankle bands. However, a cheap and easy alternative is to just use things that you already have – grab a sack of flour from your kitchen or fill your backpack with books. Add skipping to the mix, and you’ve got a very well-rounded workout that can be done in about half an hour every morning, without needing to dress up or travel to a gym.
There are also various ways in which you can organize these basic exercises. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is one option, where bursts of very intense activity are alternated with short rests. You can also use the ladders technique, where you perform one repetition of an exercise, then increase the repetitions in every subsequent set till you reach the maximum number of repetitions you can manage, and then work your way down to one again. You can also use exercise videos to guide you and motivate you. There are plenty of free videos available online, but it’s often worth spending a little money on purchasing a well designed workout video that you can use in the long term.
How do you stay in shape in your new home? Share your recommendations in the comments!