As church leaders, we often send our people to serve overseas. It is a joy to send them and we always have great expectations that they will not only have a meaningful time during their overseas experience, but also that they will grow holistically during their time away from home.
While we as church leaders excel in helping people to grow spiritually and maintain their devotion to God, we also must focus some of our energy on helping our people maintain their physical health while on assignment abroad. This is not always an easy task since people vary in their own health status, attention to diet, and commitment to exercise. Nevertheless, we can offer some helpful tips to them as they depart and as we connect with them while they are serving.
In my experience of 20 years on the mission field, there were three keys to maintaining a healthy and balanced body. These guidelines can be used universally, no matter what country or culture your people find themselves in.
1) Stay hydrated.
My number one piece of advice to anyone traveling overseas for a short trip or for a lifetime of service is to stay hydrated. As we all know, the body is mostly made up of water and the replenishment of that water is truly the key to staying healthy. Keep in mind, however, that hydrating overseas, especially while traveling or in nations with warm climates is different that hydrating in our home culture. In the peak of summer when I served in South Asia, we would drink up to four liters of water a day and combine that with a salty diet to help us retain as many fluids as possible. Those who weren’t hydrating enough quickly developed flu-like symptoms that were a result of dehydration. Do whatever it takes to consume as much water as you’re able. Thriving overseas begins here. Hydrate.
2) Find good nutrition.
We are never lacking good, nutritious food in the U.S. In fact, most of us eat too much food and concentrate on cutting back, going on diets, and eliminating unhealthy foods from the list of things we eat. However, overseas, it’s often a much different story. Many Global South nations struggle to provide enough food for their people. Thus, when those under our leadership move to a new country, they find it difficult to locate foods with which they are familiar or foods that they know will give them the adequate nutrition their bodies need. We must encourage our people to find the most nutritious foods possible and eat them with joy. There may be a lack of leafy green vegetables, but an abundance of fruit. There may be a lack of skinless, boneless chicken breasts, but high protein lentils may be a staple food item. Eat as well as possible, seeing food as fuel for the body to accomplish the very important work you’re sent there to do. Supplement with vitamins from your home country if needed, but focus on finding local sources of nutrition that will power your body to greater heights.
3) Stay active.
Many people who move overseas are unable to continue their own personal workout routine, which may have been based in a gym or may have included running long distances outdoors. Due to cultural reasons or infrastructure limitations, these things may no longer be possible once they’ve relocated. Therefore, in order to maintain personal health, those living overseas should be encouraged to get creative about staying active. In most cultures, those wanting to maintain their physical health enjoy long walks in the evening hours. Prompt your people to find walking partners with whom they can exercise together, but also spend time building relationships and learning about culture. These times of walking can be rich experiences that would be missed in a gym environment. If additional exercise is desired, it may be confined to the privacy of the home. Workout videos or online workout routines can be done in the living room using body weight resistance as an effective tool. Be creative and stay determined to move your body. It will take some intentionality, but it can be done with success.
4) Get help when you’re sick.
Somehow in the U.S., we are conditioned to push through illness and physical weakness. If we’re sick, we go to work. If we aren’t feeling well, we feel guilty if we have to adjust our schedule or cancel an appointment. We avoid taking medication and try not to have to visit the doctor. Why we do this? Who knows. But this same avoidance mentality will not work overseas, especially in the Global South/third-world nations where disease often runs rampant. As church leaders, we must compel our people serving abroad to pay attention to their health and seek medical care when they are ill. It is true that adequate medical care may not be available in some nations, but doing everything we can do to remain healthy is a key to long-term success in our field-based assignment. If you’re sick, stay home and rest. If you are prescribed medications, take them. Sickness overseas can quickly snowball into something more serious that will ultimately result in your removal from the field. When you’re sick, get help. Don’t try to tough it out.
5) Seek balance and moderation.
Above all, avoid extremes. Health requires a certain stability in personal habits that will carry you through the emotional ups and downs of living overseas. There will be times when, in order to honor your host nation, you must overeat. Balance that the next day with light meals or even fasting. During the times when you fall sick, it’s acceptable to take a break from exercise. However, as you begin to feel better, get out that door and start walking. This careful attention to creating balance in your physical life will reap good rewards in the other areas of your life. This intentionality will also be a good witness to those in the host culture who are constantly watching you and learning from your life.