Expat Health For ESL Teachers

Expat health is a topic that comes up at some point after moving abroad to teach ESL. Oftentimes, however, it can be incredibly confusing figuring out what you need to do in order to stay healthy abroad and how you can go about doing that. Many of the things you do in your home country will transfer to your new place of residence such as working out, eating healthy, etc. But, there is also going to be the extra level of figuring out how and where to go to the doctor and whether or not you need to get vaccinations before moving abroad. I’m going to go into some pre-move prep as well as some tips for staying healthy after you move abroad. This is going to be general advice. For more specific advice that is relevant to your individual health needs, you will need to consult with an appropriate medical doctor who is knowledgeable of health risks and concerns in the country you are traveling to.

Why is expat health important when teaching abroad?

Aside from the obvious that expat health is important in general, you have the added consideration of being in a foreign country where you don’t know a lot of the issues surrounding health and wellness. In your own country, you are probably quite confident of what you will need to do in the event that you are sick and where you should go as well as how much it is going to cost. Now, how about a completely foreign country? Do you know where you need to go? Do you know if the doctors speak English? Do you have enough money to cover the expense? These are all legitimate concerns that you will need to take into consideration should you choose not to pay attention to your health.

Imagine, you are towards the end of the month and a week out of being paid. You’ve been drinking a bit more than you should in the evenings and eating unhealthy and probably haven’t been sleeping like you should as you’ve been hanging out with the new friends you’ve maid in the new city you live in. You get a bad case of food poisoning and have to go to the hospital. But, you don’t have any insurance and will have to pay for everything out-of-pocket. After seeing the doctor you discover that your bill is going to be hundreds and maybe even thousands of dollars. You have enough money for the bill but now you have four days of instant noodles to look forward to until you get paid.

Not only is this a lesson in why you should save money as an expat but also why you should strive to stay healthy. Everyone gets sick but it’s safe to say that many of the general ailments we get can be prevented by doing what we need to stay healthy.

What can get in the way of expat health?

Street food, excessive drinking, pollution, poor water, lack of sleep, stress, etc. All of these are things that you can find yourself suffering from when teaching abroad. Some will be more prone to these things than others. If you don’t drink than excessive drinking isn’t going to be an issue and if you are in a country where street food isn’t all that common you probably won’t have anything to worry about there. However, stress and lack of sleep will affect all teachers at some point and if you are in a major city you will probably have to deal with some level of pollution (obviously some cities are worse than others). These are all going to be things that can adversely affect your health and can easily lead to you being sick and at the doctor’s office with one or more of a host of different ailments.

These are also the most obvious. Different countries are going to have different diseases that are endemic to the area. Most likely, if you are in a major city, you will be just fine and won’t have to worry about any of the random diseases that could be caught in a different country. But, if you are teaching in a more rural location then there is always the possibility of a random encounter with the wrong mosquito or the wrong glass of water and you can look forward to a hospital visit for Dengue Fever, Japanese Encephalitis, Hepatitis, or any of a number of other very serious diseases. It just depends on where you are and what risks are present in that location.

What can you do before going abroad?

Getting Vaccinated

It’s very simple and in most cases very cheap. However, the reality is that many people don’t get the proper vaccinations whether they are traveling as an expat ESL teacher or just for vacation. This can be extremely detrimental in the long run as many of the recommended vaccines are for diseases which can be life threatening including yellow fever, Japanese Encephalitis, Hepatitis A, and others but which are entirely preventable in most cases. Hepatitis A is a great example of this as the vaccine is almost 95% effective in preventing the disease yet every year there are over 1.4 million new cases. The last thing you want is to become a statistic in a World Health Organization report so the best thing to do for expat health is to make sure that you are checking your local governments for which vaccines you will need and then getting them. Even if you think they are expensive the cost of an emergency room visit and multiple weeks in a hospital is going to be significantly more.

Expat Insurance

Insurance is another thing that many people skimp out on when it comes to expat health. Even as I write this article I am sitting in a hotel in Manila sans insurance of any kind. Big mistake on my part and a big mistake on anyone else who doesn’t have insurance when an emergency happens. Many people believe that having insurance when you travel can be a rip-off. To a large extent, they could be right. I have had some major problems with travelers insurance in the past when trying to make claims (admittedly these problems could have been prevented if I would have read the fine print and had the proper documentation so these were problems I brought on myself). However, in that one in a million chance that you actually need to use it you are going to be sorely regretting should you not have it. Having expat insurance can save you tens of thousands of dollars in the long run. Simply ask all the people who go to the hospital in Bangkok where I live for motorcycle accidents, extreme cases of food poisoning, major infections, and other things. Many of them can tell you that expat or travelers insurance would have saved them major amounts of money. The last thing you want is to go into significant debt so don’t skip out on insurance. In many cases, you can get perfectly good insurance for less than $1,000 for the year. A small price to pay for peace of mind and good expat health.

What can you do after arriving?

Avoiding Excessive Partying

New friends, new city, and a new nightlife. For many people, the temptation to go crazy can be a huge draw. Add to this the fact that some of the more popular destinations for expat ESL teachers are also world-class party destinations and you have the right conditions for developing poor habits in terms of your health. The tendency for many new expats is to go crazy for the first few months before leveling out. But, a better habit to get into is to take things slow. You don’t need to rampage every night for the first few weeks till your immune system is shot. It is important to make new friends and enjoy new experiences in the country you are now calling home but don’t do this at the expense of your health. Your body will certainly appreciate it.

Eating Properly

This can be incredibly hard in a country where you may not have a full understanding of the local cuisine and what your options for healthy food are. I will admit that when I first moved to Thailand I ended up eating a lot of very unhealthy food simply out of convenience. Then, when I moved into a condo that had a kitchen I began cooking for myself. One of the best things you can do when you move to a new country is finding out what the different options are for healthy eating. Every country will have its share of healthy food and unhealthy food. You can easily research what these dishes are so that you know what to order when you go out. Cooking at your home if you have a kitchen is also a very good option. You may not know exactly what is going into your body when you order from a restaurant but when you cook the food you have complete control. As to what makes for the proper diet this is something you will have to come up with on your own. There are dozens of eating trends from ketogenic diet to paleo to the Atkins diet and the best thing you can do is to try each one for a month or two to see what combination of food keeps you in top shape.

Proper Exercise

In the rush to see new things and have new experiences between classes it can be sometimes hard to remember to fit in time for exercise. However, that can be a big mistake for your body due to the many benefits that can only be obtained from proper exercise. Even if you aren’t the type of person who goes to the gym there are a ton of different activities you can do to get your recommended amount of exercise each week. Every major city is going to have things like Jiu-Jitsu, Yoga, Crossfit, and many other activities that you can participate in for awesome expat health. Many places also have multiple classes so you can easily find a time of the day that works for you. In our modern age, there really is no excuse beyond a physical handicap that prevents you from getting the exercise you need. So make sure and find the time so that you can put in the exercise you need to keep yourself healthy.

Taking Supplements

Supplements are an often overlooked way to keep yourself in top shape. There are a lot of different opinions out there as to the effectiveness of supplements so you should make sure and do your due diligence before you decide to take anything. However, many people can probably find one or two things to help optimize their health. I take magnesium every day and when I can find it 5-HTP. Before you begin taking any supplements it can be worth going to a clinic to have blood work performed to measure your levels of various nutrients. Depending on the country you are teaching in this can be incredibly cheap and may even be cheaper than in your home country. A proper blood screening will be able to tell you the exact areas you are deficient in as well as what nutrients you need to be supplementing with and at what levels.

Regular Checkups

Just because you are in a foreign country doesn’t mean you should be skipping out on your routine doctor’s examinations. One of the first things you should do is find yourself a doctor that you can go to for routine preventative checkups. Preventing illness is always going to be a better option than trying to fix things after the fact and regular doctors visits are going to be one of the things you will need to do for expat health if you want to lessen your chances of getting sick. Talk to other expats or research online popular doctors in the area you are teaching. Most likely you will be able to find a doctor that speaks English and can help you to stay healthy the right way.

What are some final tips for proper expat health?

As you can probably guess from the above information much of what you will need to do for optimal expat health abroad is going to be the same as what you will need to do at home. The question is really going to be how easy will it be for you to do those things. One of the best things you can do early on when you first move is set up good habits. Remember that you are in an entirely new country and any bad habits you may have in your home country don’t have to come with you abroad. Find other expats who live a healthy life whether they are other teachers or people you meet at classes such as yoga or Jiu-Jitsu. Do what they do and structure your life abroad around optimizing your health. Remember, the point isn’t to not have fun. You can still go out and drink and eat unhealthy occasionally. Instead, the point is to develop proper habits which will facilitate for overall health in your daily life.