As someone who loves to travel, I indulge in the idea of living in exotic places, meeting new people and creating formative experiences. I anticipated all of this with excitement before I departed on my study abroad adventure to France. Unfortunately, there was one aspect of living internationally that brought on anxiety. How was living in a country, filled with different cuisines, and controlled by a different cultural lifestyle going to affect my health and fitness? To some people, this may seem like a silly fear to have. However, for many of us who are affected by dietary restrictions, exercise expectations, or just genuinely love to live a healthy lifestyle, the thought of neglecting our normal health habits sounds extremely unappealing. After returning from France (the land of bread, cheese, and wine), I wanted to disprove the myth that studying abroad means compromising your health.
One of my favorite pieces of advice I received before beginning my program in France was, “Studying abroad is not a giant vacation. If you fail to implement your daily habits, your health will suffer.” This statement was a huge wake up call to me. Although I knew I was “living abroad,” in my head I really had imagined it as a giant vacation. I thought every day would be some kind of iconic experience, filled with delicious food and crazy late nights. The reality is, you're going to be presented with more unhealthy options when you're studying abroad and a healthy lifestyle may not be as easy to maintain. Also, you may be tempted to try everything at the expense of your health. The good news is, although it may be more difficult to pursue a lifestyle that mirrors the one you have back home, it is still doable with some preparation. More importantly, investing in healthy habits while you’re away will not only help you feel better physically, but it will also facilitate a good mental state when you’re out of your comfort zone.
Moving from fit-focused California to the land-of-a-million-carbs France was initially quite a challenge. As someone who is lactose, soy, and gluten-intolerant, I was filled with disappointment every time I went to a coffee shop and asked, “Est-ce que vous avez lait d’amande?” (Do you have almond milk?) My question was usually answered with a quick shake of the head. After weeks of going out to restaurants with my friends and not being able to order anything, I decided to change my approach. I utilized TripAdvisor to find restaurants with healthy food. I downloaded the app and kept the filters on for cuisine type “healthy” and checked dietary restrictions that applied to me. To my astonishment, I was presented with a plethora of yummy and healthy restaurants close by. Another nutritional change I made was utilizing the kitchen in my apartment. I often bought local produce from the farmers markets and prepared my own french meals with a healthy twist. Even though my friends abroad didn’t have the same dietary restrictions I did, I was still able to organize picnics or potlucks where I had the freedom to bring food that nourished me.
Another worry I had living in France was that I was going to be unable to work out, especially while traveling to big cities. If you attend a gym at home, I highly encourage you to look into a gym membership abroad. Often in big university cities and towns, gyms will offer student discounts. If going to a gym in another country seems daunting or unappealing to you but you still want to pursue some sort of exercise regimen, there are often spacious parks (in many European cities) that are conducive to running, biking, circuit and weight training. More often than not, one can find an area to exercise, but it may just take a little research beforehand.
If studying abroad seemed unattainable in the past due to health concerns, I hope you believe me when I say studying abroad and being healthy can coexist. While living in France, I was able to maintain the exercise routine I have at home, successfully avoid foods I was intolerant to and maintain habits that facilitated a good mental state. The best part about it was it wasn't nearly as difficult as I had imagined. With a little preparation, being a healthy world traveler can be achieved.
Parker Ornellas is the Spring 2019 Alumni Insider in Aix-en-Provence, France, and is currently studying at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo.