Even before I took my first international trip, staying in shape was on my mind. After much effort, I’d finally lost my freshman 15, and I didn’t want traveling to Europe to be a setback.
People tried to reassure me: “It’s OK, you’ll be walking a lot.” Although I only stayed in Germany for two weeks, my running routine was destroyed by a particularly icy winter and hesitation to venture out of the isolated village I was living in. Instead, I holed up and got comfort from my delectable meals: meat, cheese, bread, and chocolate.
Getting back to the U.S. was a reality check: My run, which had once been a reachable goal, was now a struggle to complete. If going away for less than a month had wreaked that much havoc, what would a whole semester do?
Although studying abroad inevitably means a new lifestyle, it shouldn’t have a negative effect on your health. Planning out how to incorporate fitness into your routine abroad is a great idea, and not just because of the physical results; getting some exercise will allow you to meet locals, explore your hometown, and give you an emotional outlet.
Here are some considerations and suggestions you can incorporate into your international fitness plan:
Making Time Is a Challenge
Finding a time to work out can be tough if you are with a group or have to adhere to a schedule. Studying abroad brings lots of adventures, and naturally you’ll want to spend a lot of time exploring and packing your days with new opportunities. It’s tough to make working out a priority when so much else is going on.
So, what can you do?
Workout in the morning.
"I would have to get up early if I still wanted to go out with everyone else. People are traveling almost every day, so if you want to travel and still take the time to workout, you have to get up early or miss out on some trips with your friends," said Heather, who studied abroad in Florence.
Exercise with a buddy.
Having someone to exercise with will keep you accountable when it comes to your fitness goals and make working out more fun. You can approach students in your program, your dorm mates, or local friends to ask if they’d be interested.
Walking Has Its Advantages
Walking may not seem like the most intense workout, but don’t discount what it can do for you. Before her semester in Florence, Heather did 30 minutes of high-impact cardio each morning, but couldn’t fit this into her schedule in Italy because she was often traveling with friends. By the end of the semester, however, she was happy to see that her nomadic lifestyle had kept her in shape.
What else can you do?
Make walking your preferred mode of transportation.
Don’t take the train or bus if you are traveling a reasonable distance. Who wants to take the Metro in Paris when you can stroll through the city on a warm day? If you don’t like walking, consider biking — it’s another great way to work out, and many cities even have bike lanes. There are dozens of bike-friendly locations out there, such as Amsterdam.
Fill up your schedule.
By keeping busy and making many plans, you’ll not only make more friends, but you’ll also walk the city even more. Instead of catching up on your favorite TV series or Skyping with people back home, make yourself go for a walk. You’ll encounter new friends, discover interesting places, and burn some calories along the way.
Looking Past the Gym
Finding a gym in another country can be challenging or expensive. Also, if you’re abroad for less than a semester, it may not be worth it to spend money on a gym membership.
Overseas gym culture doesn’t always map to ours in the U.S. Mariel, a UC Berkeley student who volunteered in Ghana, explains “There is one gym on campus. No one really has a membership there. The electricity has been out since I've been here, and the membership fee is expensive. People don't really seem to work out here, yet they seem to maintain a healthy weight, even with all the fried food. It's very confusing! They walk a lot and dance is a big part of their culture, but for women, sports definitely are not. It is surprising for them to hear that a girl plays soccer or other sports.”
What can you do instead of joining a gym?
Play a team sport.
This is a great way to challenge yourself while making new friends. You can join a soccer league in Argentina or play rugby with friends in Australia or New Zealand. Participating in a sport will introduce you to a new part of the culture you are learning about.
Use your city.
Take full advantage of your new hometown and make it your gym. Go for a run, a hike, or a swim if you live near an ocean or a pool.
Dancing is another great way to have a cultural encounter while staying in shape. Consider taking lessons, or dance your heart out at the club. Look into participating in cultural events, which are sometimes offered at a discounted rate for study abroad students. For instance, API's study program in Costa Rica offers students dance lessons among other activities.
Balancing Your Choices
Navigating healthy food choices at home can be challenging, but when you factor in being unfamiliar with a cuisine, things can get even tougher. Your culinary experience, and the cultural connotations attached to it, can vary greatly depending on where you are studying.
For instance, when Heather was studying in Florence, the owners of the building she lived in made food for the tenants each day; if she refused the pasta or meat they offered, they felt offended. Meanwhile, in Ghana, Mariel discovered that much of the food was fried or cooked in oil. It was difficult to find fresh vegetables, and canned or frozen foods were expensive.
What can you do?
Become your own chef.
Eating at restaurants and cafes can become expensive and even unhealthy. While immersing yourself in local cuisine is a great cultural experience, make sure to maintain a balanced diet. Experiment with using new ingredients you find at markets to cook meals for yourself and friends. You can even practice your language skills at the local store when you shop for food.
Don’t forget portion control.
You can try everything you come across without gaining weight as long as you eat in moderation. If you do indulge once in a while, though, don’t beat yourself up. It’s OK to have that occasional extra scoop of gelato. Just don’t let the treats become the norm.
Being conscious of your health while abroad will help boost your immune system, make you sleep better, allow you to meet more people, explore new places, and have more energy.
An earlier version of this article, "How to Stay Healthy and In Shape While Studying Abroad," written by Madison Killen, was first published on Go Overseas.