Tips For Staying Healthy As An Expat In China

Josh Wilson
Career China Digital Marketing Manager
Jul 21, 2018

At some point in time, most expats living in China must ask one question: how will living in China affect my health? Although this is a broad question to raise, you don't need to worry--you just need a little planning. Here's what you need to know about staying healthy in China:

Fitness in China

A major part of being healthy is exercise, and there are plenty of ways to stay fit while living in China. A popular option is to join a gym--you can work out as often as you want for a monthly fee. The only downside is that gym memberships can get a little pricey, so if you're on a budget, it might not be your best option.

If you're looking to save money and exercise regularly, walking/biking to work is not a bad idea at all. Not only will you save money on gas or public transportation, but you won't have to deal with the bumper-to-bumper traffic that many cities in China are known for. 

A lot of local parks feature Tai Chi classes and sports games. As an expat in a foreign country, joining a class or sports team is a great way to meet new people and exercise at the same time. There are a lot of FREE workout common areas in local parks and apartment complexes all around China.

Healthy Diet 

As a foreigner, figuring out how to eat healthy in China might seem challenging. The cuisine is unique, and it can be difficult to tell what's healthy and what's not. 

You may already be aware that a lot of the typical Chinese diet is high in carbohydrates. Dishes packed with rice and noodles are common in the country and especially rich in carbs. High-carbohydrate diets are not only unhealthy but adjusting to them can also cause weight gain and spikes in blood pressure. Here are a few tips to avoid the abundance of carbs: 

1. Exercise more than you regularly would to burn off those extra carbs.

2. In restaurants, ask for no rice (you may get a few odd looks for this one). 

3. Replace the starchy high GI carbs (like white rice, potatoes, and noodles) with low GI carbs (like whole grains, vegetables, or tofu). 

4. Don't always order sugary drinks--replace your usual soda with traditional tea or water. 

Other than carbs, another thing to watch out for is oil. Oftentimes, Chinese restaurants will use large amounts of oil and salt to create a tastier dish--even at the cost of its nutritional value. There's not really much you can do to avoid all the oil in restaurants other than to cook at home. This way, you'll be able to control the ingredients and the cooking method for a healthier meal. Or, if you really want to eat out, you can always ask a friend to recommend restaurants that serve non-greasy food. 

If you have any special dietary restrictions, you may be doing a lot of cooking at home anyway. Big cities will probably have more options--but it's important to understand that not all Chinese restaurants are accommodating to special dietary needs.

On top of eating healthy, it's always a good idea to practice moderation. Even if you're eating healthy food, it can still be a problem if you're over-eating. Limit your portions and be wary of meals that are served "family-style"--which means platters of food are brought to the table rather than individual meals. Because courses are being continually brought out, you may not even realize how much you're actually consuming. A good tip to keep in mind at family-style dinners is that the heavier dishes are usually served first, and the lighter ones later--so pace yourself. 

When dining out or eating at Chinese resident's home, remember NOT to clean your plate. This might sound odd, but if you eat your entire portion, this will be taken as a sign that you're still hungry. Instead, eat MOST of the food on your plate, and you won't be pressured into taking another portion. At restaurants, if more food is ordered than what you can eat, don't feel like you need to eat it all for the sake of politeness--ordering large amounts of food is common in Chinese culture and nobody expects you to eat it all. 

Air Quality in China

The poor air quality in China is a health concern for all expats. Breathing in the polluted air can cause sinus congestion, headaches, and fatigue. The good news is that the air quality is getting better, and there are steps you can take to protect your health. 

First of all, you should know that the air quality changes depending on location and time of year. For example, during the winter, it gets even worse--making it harder to exercise outside. 

One thing you can do is get an app on your phone and check the air quality in your city like you're checking the weather. Some apps will not only tell you how bad it is that day but also give you an idea of how much time you should spend outdoors. If you're unsure where to move, these apps can also give you an idea of what city has the best (and worst) air quality.

Another preventative measure you can take is to get a good face mask. These won't totally protect you from the poor air, but they will help. At the end of the day, it's all about working around the air quality: if you play sports, consider playing in an indoor facility rather than outside, get an air filter for your apartment, and don't forget your face mask when venturing out. Exercising outside may be a challenge at certain times of the year, so it may be smart to do your workout at home. Or, if you can afford it, invest in a gym membership. (This isn't to say you can NEVER exercise outside, but that you should be aware of the air quality in your city before you decide to head out for a jog.)

Staying healthy in your own country--let alone staying healthy in China--can seem impossible. But, by using the tips above and planning ahead of time, managing a healthy expat lifestyle in China shouldn't be a challenge.

For more information on living and working in China, check out The Ultimate Guide for Moving to China

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