Health and Wellness

Staying Active and Fit While Living Abroad

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by Cyrus Kioko


Figuring out your goals, concocting a diet plan that’s more science than just salad, deciphering the workout routine alphabet soup, and, oh, finding the motivation to actually get off the couch — it’s a workout in itself. Now, imagine doing it all in a foreign country, where the local gym might as well be a hidden treasure, the local cuisine is a tantalizing maze, and the only familiar face at the gym is your own reflection in the weight room mirror. Yikes-worthy, undoubtedly, but I’ve got some good news: you’ve found the cheat sheet to it all. 

The key to staying fit and active while living abroad is preparation. Define your goals, learn fitness basics, create a workout plan, and align your diet with your goals. Once that’s taken care of, all you need to do is think of ways to speed up your progress and spice up your sweat sessions.

But that’s just a sneak peek; there’s a whole lot more to staying active and fit in a foreign country, and I’m about to walk you through every twist and turn. Let’s get on with it, shall we?

Setting the Foundation for Long-Term Fitness Success Abroad

Whatever your fitness goals are (we’ll talk more about those in a minute), the bigger picture will always be the same: to stick with your routine for the long haul. That takes quite a bit of discipline and motivation (David Goggings; anyone?), but a lot of it comes down to what you do (or don’t) before you even touch a weight or run a single mile. 

So, how do you make sure you start on the right foot?

Here are the absolute must-dos:

Figure Out Your Fitness Goal(s)

Let’s kick things off by addressing a crucial step that many of us tend to overlook or rush through when embarking on our fitness journey. When you’re brimming with enthusiasm to work towards a healthier, more active you, it’s tempting to jump right into your workouts and routines. But before you lace up those sneakers and break a sweat, you might want to take a step back and make sure you’ve got a clear picture of what you’re aiming for.

Setting clear, well-defined goals will give you a precise direction. It’ll help you answer questions like, “What am I working towards?” and “Why is this important to me?” Having a sense of direction is important, especially when you’re surrounded by the unfamiliar.

Goals also provide motivation. Knowing what you’re striving for will fuel your enthusiasm better than any “3 a.m. motivation” video.

Last but not least, having fitness goals can help you hold yourself accountable. Let’s face it: you won’t be fired up to exercise every day. There are days when it’ll feel like all the fire you had in you is hiding somewhere behind your couch cushions. Having clear goals will give you that extra push you need when the couch is calling louder than your dumbbells. 

So yeah, don’t skip goal setting. More importantly, make sure you get this crucial step right by setting SMART(Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals.

How do you make your fitness goals SMART?

For illustration, let’s assume your goal is to build strength and muscle in your chest. That on its own is too vague. 

Here’s its SMART version: “to increase my bench press 1RM (one rep max) from 120 pounds to 150 pounds within the next three months by following a structured training program, tracking my progress weekly, and making adjustments as needed.”

This version is Specific in that it targets a particular exercise, Measurable in terms of weight lifted, Achievable based on your current fitness level, Relevant to your overall strength-building objectives, and Time-bound with a three-month deadline for added accountability.

This, in a nutshell, is how you should approach setting your fitness goals. As simple as it seems, it can make a huge difference in your fitness journey.

Get Acquainted With Fitness Basics

This is another step many people don’t bother with, especially if they’re hiring a trainer to help them work toward their fitness goals. However, just because everyone is doing something doesn’t always make it right. I get it; not everyone enjoys reading fitness blogs, books, magazines, or watching fitness videos to learn the basics, especially when they’re rearing to get started on that new workout program. 

But this isn’t about what you enjoy or don’t. 

It’s about avoiding not-so-great outcomes such as gym gaffes. Imagine strutting into the gym, ready to conquer the elliptical, only to realize it’s a treadmill with an identity crisis. See how quickly not knowing the basics can have you auditioning for a viral “gym fail” video?

Knowing the basics will also help with injury prevention. Learning things like proper warm-up, correct form, and the right way to use equipment can significantly reduce the risk of injuries. Without this knowledge foundation, you might find yourself inadvertently courting strains, sprains, or more serious issues.

Last but not least, taking the time to learn fitness basics can go a long way to ensure you’re making the most of your time in the gym. Anyone who knows a thing or two about fitness will tell you that exercise selection can speed up or put a damper on your progress. And, it doesn’t end with choosing the right exercises; you also need to make sure you’re doing them right. Taking the time to get acquainted with the basics will help you choose exercises that give you the best bang for your buck and ensure you do them correctly, making every single set count.

Now, if you like shortcuts (I do too, no shame in that), you’re probably wondering “Can’t just hire a trainer? I mean, their whole deal is that they know pretty much everything about fitness and nutrition so I don’t have to.” 

Well, you can, but I’ll have you know that not every trainer out there is worth their salt. Some might give misleading advice, and you won’t be able to tell that happens if you know nothing about fitness.

And even with a good trainer, you still need to be an active participant in your fitness journey. Understanding the basics empowers you to engage in meaningful conversations with your trainer, ask informed questions, and actively contribute to your own progress. It’s like having a GPS in a foreign city – you can follow the directions, but it’s immensely helpful to know how to read the map yourself.

Now that we’ve established that learning the basics is super important, let’s turn our attention to the specifics of what you need to learn to lay that much-needed foundation of fitness knowledge.

To simplify everything, I’ve created a table with every bit of information you need to familiarize yourself with. Have a look:

Fitness knowledge area The most important topics to research
Exercise fundamentals. 
  • Types of exercises. Understand different types of exercises, including cardiovascular (e.g., running, cycling), strength training (e.g., weightlifting), and flexibility exercises (e.g., stretching, yoga).
  • Proper form. Learn the correct form for various exercises to maximize effectiveness and reduce the risk of injury.
  • Workout structure. Familiarize yourself with the components of a well-rounded workout, including warm-up, main workout, and cool-down.
Nutrition basics.
  • Macronutrients and micronutrients. Understand the roles of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals) in a balanced diet.
  • Caloric intake. Learn about maintaining a healthy balance between calories consumed and calories burned for weight management.
  • Hydration. Understand the importance of staying hydrated and how it contributes to overall health.
Injury prevention.
  • Warm-up and cool-down techniques. Learn proper warm-up and cool-down exercises to prevent injuries.
  • Listening to your body. Understand the importance of recognizing signs of fatigue, pain, or discomfort. This way, you’ll know when to modify or stop an exercise that might be increasing your risk of injury.
Gym equipment.
  • Basic gym equipment. Familiarize yourself with common gym equipment, such as treadmills, ellipticals, weights, and resistance machines.
  • Safe equipment usage. Learn how to use equipment safely to avoid accidents and injuries.
Fitness terminology.
  • Standard fitness lingo. Understand terms like sets, reps, intensity, and rest intervals. This will make it easier to follow workout instructions.
Muscle recovery.
  • Why rest days are important. Learn the importance of rest days and recovery in preventing burnout and promoting muscle recovery.
  • Setting your rest days. Figure out how often you need to rest in a week to maintain a healthy balance between “working out often enough” and “ensuring you’re fully recovered before your next workout.” Keep your fitness goals and training intensity in mind when making this decision. 

All this information is readily available online. Just make sure your source is credible. Critically evaluate the sources you consult by considering:

  • The author’s qualifications
  • The presence of scientific references, and 
  • Whether the information provided aligns with the broader consensus within the health and fitness community.

As a general rule, be cautious of any source that promotes quick fixes, extreme diets, or information without scientific backing.

Draw Up a Workout Plan

Now that you’ve got your fitness goals as clear as a post-workout glow and nodded knowingly at the fitness fundamentals, the next thing you need to do to start your fitness journey on the right foot is craft a workout plan. 

For the absolute fitness newbies (no shame in that; we all start somewhere), a workout plan is a structured and systematic schedule of physical activities designed to achieve specific fitness goals. It outlines everything you do during your sweat sessions, including the type of exercises, the duration, intensity, frequency, and progression over time. 

A well-designed workout plan is your roadmap to success, your fitness GPS, and, dare I say, the secret sauce (not tren, oil, or whatever other crazy stuff people are injecting nowadays) to turning those goals into reality. It gives structure and direction, helping you make the most of your time in the gym.

Ever seen someone wandering from machine to machine like a lost penguin in a snowstorm?  Don’t be that penguin. Get yourself a workout plan to keep those sweat sessions efficient and targeted. 

Creating one from scratch shouldn’t be too hard when you know your goals and fitness basics. Here’s how to go about it:

    1. Identify your fitness goal. We’ve covered this already, so I won’t bore you with repetition.
    2. Decide how often you’ll work out each week. Beginners may start with 2-3 days, while more advanced individuals might be able to handle 4-6 days per week. Be sure to consider other factors like your schedule, recovery capacity, and overall lifestyle.
    3. Decide on a workout split. There’s no right or wrong answer here. So instead of making that choice for you, I’ll give you some pointers to help you make it. PUSH/PULL/LEGs works great for people looking to exercise 3 to 4 times a week, whereas a Full Body split is perfect for those who can only exercise 2 to 3 times a week. Upper/Lower and Body-Part splits are a better fit for individuals who can train 4 times a week or more. 
    4. Select exercises for each muscle group. Choose exercises that align with your goals and target different muscle groups. If you’re just getting started, aim for 1-2 compound exercises per major muscle group (i.e., chest, back, legs, shoulders) and 1 exercise for minor muscle groups (biceps, triceps, calves). You can always increase these numbers as you progress.
    5. Define the number of sets and repetitions for each exercise. Again, this is a decision you’ll want to make with your fitness goals in mind. If your goal is to build strength, opt for lower rep ranges (4-6 reps per set works great) and perform 3-6 sets per exercise with a relatively long rest period between sets (2- 5 minutes). If you’re all about hypertrophy (muscle growth), stick to moderate rep ranges (8-12 reps) and perform 3-5 sets per exercise with rest periods of 60-90 seconds between sets. For endurance, go for higher reps (12-15+ reps), increase the number of sets as much as you can handle, and cut down the rest period between sets to about 30 seconds (a minute, max).
    6. Allocate cardio sessions. If cardiovascular fitness is one of your goals (it should be, for most people), incorporate cardio exercises like running, cycling, or swimming. Determine the frequency, intensity, and duration of your cardio sessions depending on your current fitness levels and recovery capacity. If unsure, stick to the “150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise OR 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week” prescribed by the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
    7. Plan for your warm-up and cool-down. Developing warm-up and cool-down routines is one of the best things you can do to prevent injury and speed up recovery. Include dynamic stretches for warm-ups and static stretches for cool-downs; not the other way around there’s some scientific evidence suggesting that static stretching may negatively affect muscle strength and power, especially if performed for longer than 60 seconds.
    8. Plan how you’ll progress your workouts over time. This might involve increasing weights, adjusting repetitions, or incorporating more challenging exercises to ensure continued improvement.
    9. Schedule regular rest days to allow your body to recover. Adequate rest is essential for preventing overtraining and reducing the risk of injuries. Aim for 1 to 3 days of rest a week.

Now, there are a couple of things I’d like to emphasize before I round off this section:

  • Always listen to your body and adjust your workout plan accordingly. Your workout plan shouldn’t be set in stone. You should be able to adjust it if your body starts responding negatively through signs like excessive fatigue, soreness, and negative effects on your overall well-being.
  • Keep a workout log. This can be a notebook, an app, or any other tool that allows you to track your progress (weights lifted, sets, repetitions, and any notes on how you felt during the workout). Keeping such a record is a great way to assess your performance, which will help you make informed adjustments to your plan.

If creating a workout plan from scratch seems like too much work, use a fitness app instead of skipping this step entirely. You might not get as many personalization options as someone creating their own workout plan, but you’ll still be much better off than someone who wanders into the gym like a kid in a candy store, picking and choosing exercises on a whim.

There’s an endless list of apps you can use, some free and others paid. If I had to offer a recommendation, it would be the Nike Training Club (NTC) app because:

  • The exercises come with modifications or progressions, allowing people to choose options that match their current abilities.
  • The pre-designed workout plans and programs cater to specific goals, such as weight loss, strength building, or overall fitness, allowing users to pick a routine that aligns with their fitness goals. 
  • Most exercises come with video demonstrations, making it easy to understand proper form and technique.
  • It has built-in progress tracking, which is great for motivation. 
  • It lets people choose workout durations that fit their schedule, making it convenient for beginners to integrate exercise into their daily routine.

Of course, this recommendation comes with a pinch of personal bias because I’m familiar with the NTC app and a big fan of the brand behind it. So if another app works better for you, by all means, give it a go. Just don’t train without a plan.

Sync Your Diet With Your Fitness Goals

Ever heard of the phrase “you are what you eat?” It’s not just another catchy phrase keyboard warriors have coined to fat-shame people on the internet. Sure, some people twist it to quench their thirst for putting others down so they can feel good about themselves, but we can’t deny the succinct reminder it was originally meant to convey: our body’s composition and performance are intrinsically linked to the quality and quantity of nutrients consumed.

Your dietary choices can complement or counteract all the hard work you put into your sweaty sessions. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that your nutrition aligns with your fitness goals. It requires a bit of tact to do that, but it should be relatively easy if you put genuine effort into learning about fitness fundamentals.

To make things even easier for you, let’s plunge into the delicious world of aligning your nutrition with your fitness goals, where broccoli is the superhero and pizza… well, let’s just say it has a cameo.

Step 1. Revisit Your Fitness Goals

The first step is revisiting the fitness goals you set earlier. Are you sculpting a Greek god physique, aiming for peak athletic performance, or just trying to keep up with the kids? You know the answer better than anyone; keep it in mind. 

Step 2. Figure Out Your Caloric Requirements

This is the most challenging step in this whole process, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that calories can be tricky to figure out. But don’t worry; I’ve got your back. I’m about to prove that this whole thing can be explained without unnecessary fitness jargon.

Alright, so calories are the standard unit of measurement used for the amount of energy in everything we consume – like the way we use pounds or kilograms to measure weight. Your body needs a certain amount of this energy to do its basic stuff, like breathing and keeping everything ticking. We call this the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). 

Now, when you eat and drink, you’re taking in calories, and that gives you the energy to do your daily activities. But here’s the deal: if you eat more calories than your body actually needs for life-sustaining functions, it stashes the extra as fat. That’s how you gain weight. But if you eat fewer calories than your body requires, it starts using up that stored fat, causing you to lose weight.

Keep in mind, though, it’s not just about calories. The type of stuff you eat matters too. Different macronutrients—carbohydrates, proteins, and fats—provide varying amounts of energy per gram. Carbohydrates and proteins each contribute about 4 calories per gram, while fats contribute around 9 calories per gram. 

This distinction is crucial when you’re trying to align the composition of your diet to your fitness goals because it allows you to portion each macronutrient to support what you’re trying to achieve. 

How come?

Let’s use an example to answer that question.

Picture this: you’re trying to gain lean muscle mass. You know that you need to maintain a caloric surplus (I.e. eat more than your BMR) to achieve that goal. Let’s assume you’ve determined the caloric surplus required to achieve that goal is 300 calories per day (which, by the way, lies in the universally recommended range of 200 to 500 extra calories a day).

In this case, you’d need the knowledge of how many calories per gram are in each macronutrient to ensure that you’re getting enough calories from protein, the most important macronutrient for building muscle. You’d still have carbs and fats in your diet to give you quick and sustained energy, respectively, but you’d consume more protein than the average person.

See why knowing how many calories are in each macronutrient is important?

Great! Now let’s talk about how you can figure out how many calories you need for maintenance (i.e. the BMR). Why is this important? Because you can’t adjust your calorie intake to gain weight, lose it, or achieve whatever other fitness goal if you don’t know your maintenance calories. 

If you don’t mind a bit of math, you can use the Harris-Benedict equation (look it up; the formula is pretty easy to follow). It doesn’t just calculate your BMR; it also factors in your current activity level for added accuracy. 

If you’ve got too much on your plate to do the math, you can use an online BMR calculator. Just search “BMR calculator” and choose one that explicitly states that it makes calculations based on the Harris-Benedict equation. Click here for one.

Step 3. Adjust Your Diet Per Your Caloric Requirements

Once you’ve got an idea of your maintenance calories, you can adjust your food portions and composition per the table below:

Goal Recommended Caloric deficit/surplus Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR) What to expect
Weight loss A deficit of 500 calories per day
  • Protein: 15%−25% of total calories
  • Carbohydrates: 45%−65% of total calories
  • Fats: 20%−35% of total calories
To lose about 1lb (about half a kg) per week.
Maintaining Current weight Consume maintenance calories
  • Protein: 10–35% of total daily calories
  • Carbohydrates: 45%−65% of total calories
  • Fats: 20%−35% of total calories
To get fitter without losing or gaining weight.
Muscle gain (AKA, bulking) A surplus of 10–20%. (i.e., multiply your maintenance calories by any figure between 1.1–1.2 to get the specific calories you need to consume each day)
  • Protein: 30–35% of total daily calories
  • Carbohydrates: 45%−60% of total calories
  • Fats: 15%−30% of total calories
A weight gain of 0.25–0.5% of your body weight per week. 

If you have other goals that don’t fall outside cutting, bulking, or maintaining your current weight, you’ll be better off enlisting the help of a professional to help you adjust your calorie intake and macronutrient distribution. Your dietary needs are different from a normal person, and your food portions and macronutrient composition should reflect that. 

Tips to Fast-Track Your Progress and Spice Up Your Fitness Journey

Finally, you’ve got your goals figured out, created a solid workout program, and have your diet on point. What’s next? Well, it’s what I like to think of as the fun part: getting active. There isn’t much more you need to figure out except the handful of things you can do to fast-track your progress and inject a dash of fun into your fitness journey.

Here’s a rundown of those “things”. 

Get Yourself a Gym Buddy

This is one of the many reasons why making friends and building a support network abroad is so important. In most cases, your search for a gym buddy will start in your social circle. If you don’t have friends, you won’t have the easiest time finding a workout buddy on a whim because the gym is one of the toughest places to break the ice with a complete stranger. It’s not impossible; it just takes much more social skills compared to other settings.

What if you’ve just touched down and haven’t made friends (yet)?

My best advice would be to give this guide a thorough read. It covers everything about making friends while living abroad; it even has an entire section on how to approach complete strangers in the gym and potentially strike a rapport. Trust me, it’s a worthwhile read, and so will the effort you put into getting a training partner.

Having a workout buddy is great for motivation and accountability. We all have those moments when the couch looks comfier than the gym, and Netflix seems way more appealing than a workout. Those are the days when your workout buddy will give you that much-needed kick in the butt. They’ll be your personal David Goggins, reminding you of your fitness goals and pushing you to lace up those sneakers. Plus, it’s much harder to bail on your fitness plans when you know you’re not just letting yourself down.

Having a teammate also makes the whole fitness thing way more fun. Exploring a new city with someone while getting your steps in or trying out local workout classes together adds a social element to your routine. It turns the sometimes mundane working out into a social activity, and that’s a win-win.

Lastly, a training partner takes the unfamiliarity out of your fitness quest. They’ll be your extra set of eyes and ears, making it safer and more enjoyable to explore new jogging routes or hit up local fitness spots.

Embrace Local Healthy Eats

The fact that you’re on a quest to become a fitter, more active you doesn’t mean you should starve yourself of one of the joys of living abroad: exploring the local culinary scene. On the contrary, incorporating local eats into your diet can make your fitness journey a whole lot more fun.

Sure, chicken and rice might be your fitness staples, but a little culinary variety won’t hurt. Exploring local healthy options allows you to add a burst of flavors, textures, and nutrients to your diet. It’s like a tasty vacation for your taste buds.

Plus, it’s much easier to stick to eating healthy when you’ve got some variety. Let’s be honest, sticking to a strict diet can get monotonous. Incorporating local healthy options keeps your meals exciting, helping prevent the dreaded “diet burnout.”

Last but super-important, adding local foods to your diet can help you tackle one of the biggest challenges globetrotters face: understanding local customs and social etiquette in a new country.  Food is a significant part of any culture, and trying local eats is a fantastic way to connect with the community and get a taste (literally!) of the place you’re living in. It adds a cultural dimension to your meals, turning them into experiences rather than just fuel for your workout.

Don’t Just Exercise; Explore!

Adventure is an important part of living abroad. So don’t limit your exercise to the gym. Every now and then, lace up those sneakers, head out, and explore your new surroundings. Go on a hike, a swim, a walk, or even take a sunrise yoga class by the beach if that’s an option. Your fitness routine can become a window to a world of new experiences if you keep an open mind. 

Cyrus Kioko
Cyrus is a seasoned blog post writer with over five years of experience in crafting and editing articles spanning technology, lifestyle, and finance niches. Fueled by an authentic passion to contribute valuable insights, he has invested thousands of Netflix-less hours in research for this site. Each piece he writes is aimed at empowering readers to make well-informed, real-life decisions. Holding a degree in commerce and armed with ample copywriting courses, he brings both expertise and a touch of nerdy flair to the table.
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