Most people who are new to China, no matter which country they are from, have similar health concerns: How do I avoid air pollution? How can I keep my children healthy? Where can I find nutritious and safe foods? You actually have the exact same concerns as local Chinese people! I have lived in China since 2006, working as a family doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital, and I would like to share what I feel are the top tips for thriving here in China. The secret to success here is to take control of your health choices, and it’s easier than it sounds.
Tip 1: Lead an Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle
I find it useful to picture China as a pro-inflammatory country. “Pro-inflammatory” means causing free radical damage to our healthy cells, as well as setting off cascades of unhealthy hormones and enzymes that can slowly lead to many illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. Because we are exposed to these chemicals in our foods and in the air we breathe, it might be helpful to ask yourself, “What can I do to fight off this damage?” Fortunately, you can take a lot of basic steps: don’t smoke; exercise; limit your exposure to air pollution; watch your alcohol intake; and eat anti-inflammatory foods such as fruits and vegetables. You should also avoid our modern world’s unhealthier foods including trans-fats, processed foods and grain-fed red meats.
Tip 2: Air Pollution — Control Your Exposure
Air pollution is a problem in almost every city in China, but it is generally worse in the north including Beijing and Tianjin. Sometimes the Air Quality Index (AQI) is many times higher than World Health Organization (WHO)-recommended levels. Air pollution may be a serious health concern if you or your children have lung or heart conditions. Healthy people may also develop symptoms on severely polluted days. Children are especially at risk for long-term lung damage because their sensitive lungs keep growing until their late teens. But it’s important to realize two things: First, the relative risk of air pollution causing health problems is much lower than the risk of suffering from other lifestyle factors such as lack of exercise, poor nutrition and smoking. Second, you can take steps to avoid the worst of the pollution. Because 90% of our lives are spent indoors, use indoor air purifiers to clean your air at all times, especially in a child’s bedroom. On the worst days, especially when the AQI is over 200, you should consider limiting your outdoor activities. If you or your child must go outside on those bad days, wear an N95-rated air pollution mask. N95 means the mask blocks 95% of fine particles. By taking these steps, you can dramatically decrease your total exposure to air pollution. (Click here for more articles about air pollution)
Tip 3: Play with Your Food
Food safety is a major concern all over China, so I recommend sticking to foods, restaurants and markets that you know are safer. Organic food is a good choice because it is more likely to be free of toxic levels of pesticides and chemicals. High prices and availability can be an issue, but the next level of protected foods – called GreenFood (绿色食品) – are often cheaper than organic foods and claim to use fewer chemicals. The big supermarkets – such as Metro, Walmart and Carrefour – have a growing selection of organic foods. Also, their general quality of produce and meats are high due to their supply chains and cold storage. No matter where you get your produce, always clean and rinse it properly, especially leafy greens. In the summer, be especially careful where you buy your meats and produce because dangerous bacteria can grow quickly on uncovered, un-cooled meats. Don’t forget other basics of food safety: try to use glass containers (not plastic) and polyethylene (PE) cling wrap; make sure your ayi knows how to properly clean and prepare foods; and try to drink water from installed filters and not delivered bottles. (Much of the delivered water and containers are counterfeit or unsafe). You can also make your own soymilk and yogurt with machines that can be purchased at many stores. (Click here for more articles about food safety)
Tip 4: Get Fit – Even Outside!
China shares the same #1 killer as the rest of the world: heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. Most heart disease is caused by our modern lifestyles and can be prevented..We all need to focus on the basics of maintaining healthy body weight, eating proper foods, not smoking, and, most importantly, exercising. With exercise, you should aim for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, or 90 minutes of more energetic exercise. You can also try shorter routines called high-intensity interval training (HIIT) three times a week for 15 minutes each. You should do whatever sport you love. Beijing is filled with gyms and public parks, and there are many hiking and biking clubs. Don’t be afraid to exercise outside! As long as the AQI pollution index is reasonable (under 150), exercising outside is still much healthier than not exercising at all. If the AQI is high, especially over 200, you should wear a properly fitted pollution mask when exercising outdoors. (Click here for more articles about exercise)
Tip 5: Enjoy the Four Seasons
Beijing has clear seasons with a climate generally similar to New York or London. Spring and fall are the best times of year but often pass too quickly. Each season has its own particular oddities.
Summer: Major health issues include a big increase in gastroenteritis (diarrhea), as well as travel-related issues from vacations to exotic (and malaria-rampant) south Asian locales. You really need to be careful about street food as well as where you buy your meats and produce because food spoils rapidly. On vacation, the best way to prevent a health disaster is to do early research into your destination’s health status on the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) website for travelers’ health. Bring a medical travel kit to help when you meet common issues like diarrhea. Prepare early; you may need a month or more to finish a full course of vaccines, such as Japanese encephalitis, rabies or hepatitis. These are often in short supply at the expat clinics during the summer crunch. If you’re here in Beijing, enjoy the great outdoors! Explore the mountains to the west and north, or take trips to Tianjin or the Beidaihe beaches.
Autumn: Often a wonderful season, autumn is full of comfortable nights and blue skies. You should enjoy this all-too-brief time of perfect weather by exploring Beijing’s mountains and tourist attractions. As the air chills, join your fellow Beijingers in line to eat delicious roasted chestnut and sweet potatoes. At night, feel free to join the dancing and singing in almost every street corner and park.
Winter: This season can be monotonously cold, lasting from November all the way to March. It is usually dry with clear skies and the occasional snowfall of a couple of centimeters shutting down the streets. The worst health problems usually include colds, influenza, dry skin and winter depression – plus overeating during the amazing Chinese New Years holidays. You should pamper yourself to avoid the winter blues, especially by visiting a local hot springs resort for a gloriously relaxing afternoon or overnight stay. Beijing’s air is extremely dry, so you should regularly apply moisturizer and use humidifiers at home to keep indoor humidity levels around 30-50%. Our vitamin D levels drop during winter’s sunless days, so adults and children should consider taking a daily supplement. During Chinese New Year, many people leave town for the holidays, leaving Beijing virtually traffic- and pollution-free for four weeks – the perfect time to explore!
Spring: Like autumn, spring is often a wonderful time of year, especially April and May. In March, Beijing gets sandstorms, which can be a respiratory health hazard. But if you use a little common-sense avoidance, you’ll be fine. In May, catkin pollen fills the air like snow, but this causes almost no health problems. Many people have allergic hay fever in the spring, but quite a few actually experience fewer symptoms than they do back home. For springtime fun, you should definitely join the rest of Beijing by flocking to local parks for the beautiful spring blossom festivals. Enjoy the local outdoors as much as you can before summer’s always-too-early heat kicks in.
Tip 6: Explore Beijing by Bicycle
Biking in Beijing is a vanishing tradition but continues to be the most convenient mode of transport around many parts of Beijing. Biking is often faster than driving. Plus, you gain immense lifetime value from improved health and fitness, even if you factor in the pollution (wear a mask if it’s very bad that day). I bike to work every day and feel a deep connection to real Beijing. There’s simply nothing as charming as biking through the old hutong neighborhoods, especially at night. Don’t forget to wear your helmet! You may stand out in a crowd, but helmets are lifesavers for you and your children.
Tip 7: Take Care of Your Body and Soul
Beijing’s hectic pace and harsh environment can put a lot of stress on us, and some cope much better than others. It’s crucial to frequently check in with our hearts and souls and ask ourselves, “Am I happy here in Beijing? Am I neglecting something or someone, including myself?” Health tips include getting eight hours of sleep; enjoying a massage, spa or hot springs as much as possible; joining others for yoga, tai chi, or dancing; and staying away from smoking and excess alcohol. If you’re worried about your life spinning out of control, please take advantage of our friendly counseling team. (Click here for more articles about mental health)
Tip 8: Be Aware of Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Beijing is not immune to the worldwide problem of sexually transmitted diseases. Thus, there are many reasons for you to practice safe sex. Be careful where you buy condoms; many poorly made counterfeits are sold, usually in smaller stores. You should buy only from the big chain stores or pharmacies. Don’t forget that you can carry sexual infections for many years and feel perfectly healthy — but still infect others. That’s why sexually active men and women should get tested regularly. These tests can give you a lot of peace of mind, especially if you are entering a new relationship.
I hope you find these health tips useful, and I wish you and your families a wonderful time here in China. If you’re ever in need of medical help, everyone’s more than welcome to see me in my family medicine clinic here at Beijing United Family Hospital.