Staying Healthy While Abroad

So I’ve had two previous extended stints abroad. The first time was when I was in Beijing for a semester studying Chinese. The second time was a 9 month trip backpacking/studying/traveling through Asia. And now I’ll be living in Vietnam for at least one year.

When I was in Beijing I basically did zero physical activity besides walking. Granted, I did walk a ton but I didn’t do much else. I attended a ballet class every once in awhile, but the class was pretty low impact. I also visited a couple of mountains in China but over the course of 5 months, those two hikes didn’t do much for my health. Since I was a student doing the whole dorm-style living, I didn’t have a kitchen (nor did I know how to cook at that point in my life anyway) so I was eating out for every meal. While Chinese food is delicious, a lot of the food that you’ll get at restaurants tend to be pretty oily and greasy. The pollution was also really bad in Beijing which didn’t help my health. While I didn’t feel horrible in China, I also didn’t feel my best. I felt greasy a lot and the pollution caused me to have permanent congestion while I was in Beijing. Some students bought gym memberships to a nice gym near our school that had clean air, good facilities, and classes available. Since I didn’t want to spend the money or the time working out, I decided not to get a gym membership. If I were staying in Beijing for longer than a semester though, I probably would’ve been more adamant about establishing an exercise routine for myself. Also at that time in my life, I didn’t pay much attention to my physical health. I was really athletic in high school and when I went to college, I was tired of always working out all the time so I took a break from almost all forms of physical exercise besides the very lax twice-a-week cheerleading practices and dance rehearsals which weren’t very strenuous.

It wasn’t until after I came back from Beijing that I became more dedicated to exercising regularly. I started exercising again because the people I lived with were 1. great work out partners 2. really encouraging and 3.I realized how much exercise helped me to manage my stress from school. I danced, ran, and lifted weights. I felt good physically and mentally.

So when I left for a 9 month trip in Asia, it was a shock to my system to not be exercising all the time. It’s difficult to find a place and time to exercise when you’re on the move all the time. Some places I stayed for a month and other places I stayed no longer than 2 weeks. We stayed in hotels, hostels, gers, dormitories, etc. Finding space and privacy were constant struggles. And I ate out for almost every single meal during those 9 months. I resigned myself to the fact that I would not be as in shape as I would’ve liked. Besides, I didn’t want to spend time working out when I could be out exploring. I also wasn’t going to deprive myself of eating and trying as much food as I could. After all, one of my favorite things about travel is trying different foods.

While I wasn’t working out as much as I normally would, I did get exercise in other ways. I walked a ton. And I mean A TON. I normally walked at least 30 minutes minimum daily. I also tried to take advantage of some of the opportunities available to me. In Mysore, India I took a yoga and Indian dance class, In Fuzhou, China I played a lot of table tennis. In Gangtok, India I took a bollywood dance class. In Dharamsala, India, I walked around the Dalai’s Lama’s temple every evening which was a good, brisk walk. I even did  a trek in the Himalayas at one point.

Since I was always on the move during those 9 months though, I felt pretty active even if I wasn’t technically “working out.” I think my biggest problem though was adjusting to not always having a choice with what I could eat. For example in India, my stomach was constantly having problems and I always felt tired since most of the food I was eating was entirely vegetarian. I learned to always carry almonds around with me or other snacks to supplement my meals which helped a lot. As for the stomach problems, I just had to experiment with different foods until I found the foods that my stomach could handle best.

I think the important thing about being healthy when being abroad is just being conscious of how you’re feeling, mentally and physically. If I’m feeling lethargic, then I try to get more protein in my diet and I try to eat more fruits and veggies. Water also does wonders. Dehydration is usually the source of a lot of my problems. Also, with travel, it’s easy to get overstimulated so learning how to take breaks or even just taking deep breaths will help.

No matter the exercise, big or small, I think the best way to stay healthy is to knowing your body and knowing what you need, and then making sure you dedicate time taking care of yourself.

Now that I’m living in Vietnam, I’ve had to create a new routine for myself. Tra Vinh City is a very relaxed and slow-paced city so it’s easy to get into the habit of lounging around, sitting at coffee shops, and napping. Before moving to Vietnam, I was biking almost daily and going to dance and yoga class 4 times a week. There are no dance or yoga studios in Tra Vinh which has been hard for me. My body was definitely having dance withdrawals when I first came here. Luckily though, I’ve been able to keep biking. I bike every day. I thought about getting a motorbike, but Tra Vinh is small enough that biking is very accessible and oftentimes ends up being my only form of exercise. When I’m feeling motivated, I’ll do short yoga and dance exercises. And occasionally, I’ll play soccer. I also love playing the da cau, which is this feather hackey/shuttlecock game that you pass around by kicking it into the air. It’s a really fun game play with random groups of students.

“Staying healthy” is a very subjective term depending on your definition of healthy so I don’t really have amazing advice on this subject. But I know what works for me and what makes me feel good. A lot of it seems pretty obvious. I can’t stress how important it is though, to really pay attention to your body and mind. For me, physical health and mental health are equal in importance so being healthy for me, is not just about being in shape. It’s always helpful for me to take time everyday just focusing on me and making sure I’m in a good physical as well as mental place. So in sum:

  1. Make sure you’re getting a balanced diet. Adding yogurt, protein, fruit, and vegetables does wonders. As does being hydrated.
  2. Get your body moving. Walking is an easy way to get some exercise in. You can even do small workouts that are as short as 15 minutes. Do pushups, lunges, and squats if you don’t have a ton of space or time.
  3. Play sports with the locals. You don’t need a common spoken language to play sports. Not only do you get a great workout, you’ll make more friends, and it’s more fun than doing pushups by yourself.
  4. Find out what’s around you. Maybe there’s an awesome gym or climbing wall near you. Or maybe there’s a biking, walking, or running club. Maybe you can play sports in a league. Ask around and see what opportunities you might be interested in. I found a dance club my first couple weeks here. When I have free time, I’ll go and learn ballroom.
  5. Make a routine out of your workouts. I bike daily but I also try to dedicate some time every morning on my yoga mat. I also try and do weekly soccer games with my Vietnamese friends. If you have a routine, it’ll be easier to stick to it.
  6. Spend time on you. Sometimes all I need is some time writing things down in my journal. Other days, I just need to run back and forth on a soccer field, and on some days I just need to dance it out in my room by myself. Just make sure you pay attention to you. Know your body and adjust accordingly. It’s okay to not always be doing something every second of your day and just spend a night in watching a movie.
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