A quick google search on "expat weight" shows that many people struggle with putting on at least few pounds when they move abroad. This article from the UAE claims that 98 out of 100 UAE expats who are overweight claim that moving abroad attributed to them getting fatter!
Moving (especially to a new country) can cause you to upend most everything in your life and gives you a chance reset. I'm sure some people do this really well (like 21-year-old me who moved to India when I didn't like Indian food - don't worry I quickly got over that), but others struggle with the new work-life balance in a totally new environment.
I’ll be honest - when we moved to Saudi Arabia, I was already out of shape. Even still, I quickly found myself putting on more pounds as the ease of eating out and the challenge of relearning how to shop and cook proved to be overwhelming. Plus, I wasn’t taking advantage of the great facilities we have here. Within 6 months, I found myself at the largest I'd ever been, and I didn't like it.
Something had to change.
It was at this point I realized that I could be complacent, or I could really take advantage of this season of life. So, making little changes over the last year, I've been able to turn my story around and see big results. By starting with walking and swimming a few days a week, I've gone from the worst shape I've ever been in to where…
I lost 50 pounds!
And now I'm in the best shape of my adult life!
So, how did I do it? There's no magic formula, but I really think it was a combination of simple things that I knew all along but didn't take action on until recently - exercise, food intake, and accountability. If the calories you consume are less than the calories you burn, you can lose weight – and having accountability in that helps you follow through.*
Exercise - I started with things I enjoyed and kept it simple. They weren't big changes at first, but instead, I gradually added in things I liked to do.
- I found the things I like - When I first started working out again, it was swimming, racquetball, and walks - things I looked forward to! Over time I added a few (and then a lot of) bike rides, and my walks became jogs which are becoming runs. I don't typically like weight training, so I just haven't done it. I know it'd be good for me, so maybe someday, but I'd rather spend my energy where I'm having fun for now.
- I slowly built up my exercise levels - When working out in the past I'd always start out blazing at 100% for a few weeks, but I'd wear myself down, and before long I was back on the couch. Rather than just taking off running (which I really couldn't do at that point to be honest), I started with brisk walks and swimming which were less straining but still helping me improve my fitness.
- We live in a hot, humid climate which made working out throughout the winter a breeze, and then I learned to embrace our great facilities like indoor gyms and cooled pools during the scorching summers.
Food - I'm hesitant to say "diet" because that typically implies an unobtainable fad you do for a short time. Changing our views on the food we eat has probably been the biggest reason I've seen the results I have this year. I lost a few pounds when I started exercising, however, it was when we reevaluated what we were eating that things took a drastic turn for the better. While “dieting” was part of the journey, we’ve worked to make our food choices sustainable for the long run.
Ashley and I have tried to “eat healthy” before, but it always felt so overwhelming. We never knew where to start, so our healthy eating streaks were probably about 24 hours long.
- In January, we decided to take a crack at Whole30 – the very restrictive diet (and a diet it certainly is). In the process we made a major revelation. For the longest time, we viewed healthy eating as taking away foods to only leave the “good stuff” behind. We struggled with what to take away and what could stay. Whole30, turned this on its head.
- Rather than having to figure out the things that were bad, we had a pretty good list of things that were good. We faithfully stuck to this list for 30 days, and the results were pretty amazing. I lost 17 pounds that month!
- Once Whole30 was done, rather than going back to our old ways, we used this new list of “good foods,” and then when we could evaluate new foods as we decided if we wanted to reintroduce them. For the first time, developing a healthier food regiment was easier and attainable!
- We’ve found eating healthy to be somewhat more expensive (especially in a desert where pretty much everything is imported), but we’ve decided that it’s worth the investment in ourselves.
- Now we’ve added back things to our diet that aren’t included on Whole30, we have “cheat meals” when we’re with friends or out or on vacation (Southeast Asia set me back a few pounds), and we may have bought a roll of cookie dough once. But that’s okay! We’ve realized that if we’re taking care of ourselves the vast majority of the time, a few things here and there are okay. Plus, it makes our diet seem less oppressive when there’s not much that’s completely off limits if done within reason. Knowing I don’t have to completely give up pizza keeps me sane!
- We’ve decided though, that there are things that just aren’t worth it. Sugar is a big one. While I won’t turn down a dessert offered by a friend, we’ve tried to eliminate our sugar intake when we’re eating at home. Sugar is added to pretty much everything, but we’re working on finding alternatives (like using dates as a sweetener, for example).
Accountability - Having accountability in place was vital to keep me going! I couldn’t have done it alone, and here are the four big things that have helped me so far:
- Ashley – Having my live-in accountability partner has been priceless. I couldn’t have done Whole30 while someone in my house ate pastas and pizzas, and having someone else getting up early to bike or run is extra motivation to not get left behind.
- Workout Buddies – I usually work out alone, but especially in the beginning having coworkers to swim with at lunch or Ashley to walk with in the evenings was a huge motivation to keep going. It’s easy to skip out on things if I'm alone, but having someone counting on me has helped me keep active. There’s actually a big community of active people at KAUST, I just had to reach out and ask!
- Data – It’s amazing how technology can really help you up your fitness game. I bought a Garmin watch when I first started getting active, and it was fun to track how far I’d walked, how many laps I’d swam or how fast I’d gone on my bike. Then the data gets uploaded online, you can move it over to programs like Strava, and then you can virtually compete with friends around the world. It’s world-wide accountability and detailed workout analytics all rolled into one!
- Setting Goals – Having a goal to work towards has helped me recently. First it was to fit back into a pair of pants, and then it was to have those same pants be too big. Then it became running a whole 10k without stopping. And as my fitness has improved, my goals are becoming bigger – Ashley just convinced me to sign up for the Bahrain Half-Ironman Triathlon in November! Putting money down for that registration has kicked the accountability up one more level!
As you can see, nothing here was groundbreaking, but when added together these adjustments resulted in big changes. In fact, on average I only lost a pound a week! It was the perseverance to keep going that has made this possible.
I’m learning to embrace the positive opportunities that I’ve had here to improve my well-being. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m grateful I took that first step!
What small changes have you found that lead to big results?
*I’m no doctor, so take this as descriptive of my experience rather than prescriptive for you!