What I learned about staying healthy while living overseas (it’s surprising)

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Before moving to Morocco in 2012, I had one major fear. I didn’t fear loneliness, or being far from my home country, or not being able to communicate with those outside of my culture and native language. I wasn’t afraid of not finding a job, or even of the possibility of terrorist attacks (although there had been a major attack in Marrakesh in 2011). This one thing crossed my mind again and again while packing and preparing: the fear of gaining weight.

I imagined myself cooped up in an apartment, unable to run outside, unable to go to crossfit or pilates or yoga, sitting on a frosh and desperate to move. On top of that, I would have Moroccan women force-feeding me hunks of olive-oil soaked bread, endless tea cookies and of course, lots and lots of meat- organs and all. My daily habits would be turned upside down, and I would totally lose control of my otherwise carefully regimented routine: run 2-3 times a week with an additional workout on top of that, salads for lunch and never, ever eat till I was stuffed. I was about to surrender control though, in the name of being culturally fluid. And I was terrified.

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If you’ve never seen a stomach tagine before….

The ultimate result, however, really, really surprised me. Not only did I maintain my weight, I ended up learning to stay healthy and be much, much happier and more relaxed about the whole thing. Here’s what I learned, from myself and from my Moroccan friends:

1. Walk to your next destination. 

Most Moroccans do not in fact own a car, and the same applies to the rest of the world. For most of the world’s urban population, vehicles are inconvenient, expensive and unnecessary. If I chose to walk to work now, it would take me 12 hours and 28 minutes (just checked). But in Morocco, it took me 15 minutes. While unrealistic to replicate this in the U.S., I can choose to take walks to relax and clear my head, or walk with friends instead of sitting on the couch. That’s how I socialized much of the time with Moroccan friends. I had 1 good friend who I would meet up with 2 or 3 times a week just to walk around the city for sometimes up to 3 hours. I didn’t notice I was burning calories or building muscle mass trekking up and down the hills, but I was. And this was in fact, my best form of exercise.

2. Eat when you’re hungry.

With my same walking-partner friend, I noticed that sometimes she would eat massive amounts of food, and sometimes not at all. Because she ate when she was hungry. And she didn’t obsess about it. I once saw her eat a massive chicken tagine closely followed by a 6-inch fried potato sandwich (yes, that’s a thing). Other days, she would eat a yogurt for lunch and call it a day because she wasn’t hungry. I learned that sometimes thinking less about food actually means you’ll eat less. Your body knows what it needs. I’m not advocating an unhealthy diet or skipping meals, I’m just saying to stop over-thinking what you’ll eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

3. Choices can be stressful.

As Americans, we have a lot of control over every aspect of our lifestyles. Many of us have the luxury of choosing what we eat and how we exercise, but most people have neither one of those choices, nor would they consider it otherwise. In Mozambique, for example, where I spent 3 months in the fall of 2015, most people subsist mainly on rice and beans, or rice and matapa (a spinach mixture). The idea of losing the ability to choose freaks out most Americans. But it actually can be quite freeing. What will I eat today for lunch? Rice and beans again? Great! I swear, I miss those massive bowls of sticky white rice and soupy beans. And guess what? I felt great the whole time in Mozambique, and didn’t gain a pound.

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making Matapa (spinach dish) in Mozambique- it’s what’s for lunch!

Lessons learned and maintained

Running less not only means I have more time, it means I’m not always ravenous. Eating food that I don’t necessarily feel like eating (hello, organ meat) has taught me that 1 or 2 meals outside of my norm are not going to kill me. And no gym taught me how to do yoga and pilates in my living room, which I still practice and love.

Ultimately, this is not about weight, or even maintaining a level of health. It’s about a mindset- about learning to adapt to a different culture, routine and lifestyle and learning to release our “must-haves”. I have learned that many aspects of my schedule or routine that I have considered crucial to my existence, my happiness and my well-being are not in fact, essential. In fact, I have learned to maintain my health with less upkeep and more peace than ever before.

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