It’s middle August again — and hundreds of new expat families have been arriving to Beijing these last couple weeks. Most expats who are new to Beijing, no matter which country they are from, have the same health concerns: How can I make my kids safe? Where can I find a good doctor? Just how bad is the air? As a long-term expat and family doctor at Beijing United Family Healthcare, I’ve tried to summarize the top issues that newcomers should be aware of — and how they can stay healthy. I wrote a “Top Ten” list for newcomers this last year, and here is my updated post:
Respect The Air Pollution — But Don’t Be Controlled By It.
Yes, it’s true: Beijing’s air pollution is one of the worst in the world, with a daily average Air Quality Index of about 140, which likely is much higher than your home country. This may be a factor in your health if you or your children have lung or heart disease. But even healthy people may experience problems on the very bad days. I think the #1 step is to acknowledge and to respect this issue — but you should absolutely plunge yourself into the wonders of Beijing without fear. Many expats follow the AQI index from the US Embassy’s monitor, at website iphone.bjair.info. In general, an AQI over 200 is especially unhealthy and children at home and at school should be restricted from outdoor activities. Many expats also use air pollution masks; always look for the N95 rating to ensure quality and effectiveness.
You can read a lot more about air pollution, including the major published reports, at my Pollution page.
Buy Organic Food.
Food safety is a major concern all over China, and organic food in general has more government oversight than a standard local farm. Thus, organic farms have the best chance of being the most free of toxic levels of pesticides and chemicals. As to where to buy your organics, it’s best to stick with the big stores, which have more money and investment for their own supply chain. That would include the big stores like Walmart, Carrefour, Tesco, Auchan and others; the local supermarket brand Jingkelong also is developing a good supply chain and distribution. There are also a number of organic farms in the suburbs and Shunyi which offer special deliveries, as well as special memberships and occasional visits to visit their farms, which can be very rewarding and fun for families. Many expats shop at the expat-focused chains of April Gourmet and Jenny Lou’s, which have small sections of organics.
You can read all my posts about organic foods by clicking here.
Buy A Bike.
Beijing’s streets can be dangerous, with the ever-increasing cars sharing roadways with pedestrians, pedal bikes as well as the explosion of electric bikes. However, I do think everyone should get a bike and use it as much as possible. Firstly, biking continues to be the most convenient transport around many parts of Beijing and often may be faster than a car. Plus, the exercise value is crucial, and biking in Beijing’s pollution is still healthier than not exercising at all. But my #1 love of biking is the deep connection I feel to real Beijing; there’s simply nothing like biking through the old hutong neighborhoods, especially at night. It’s one of those unique Beijing moments you will really miss once you leave here. Helmets are rarely worn by locals but are lifesavers for you and your children.
Take Control of Indoor Air.
We expats spend so much energy worrying about outdoor air that we forget that 90% of our time is spent indoors. Air quality indoors can often be just as bad, or worse, than outside. Fortunately, we have a lot more control over our homes and offices than we do our outside world. If you protect the 90% of your Beijing time with well-made air purifiers, special air-scrubbing plants and proper ventilation, as well as knowing about when to open or close your windows, then you can literally breathe better and relax about your years here in Beijing.
For more, please read my articles about indoor air pollution.
To Every Thing, There Is A Season.
Beijing has a surprising variety of all four seasons. Spring and fall, the best times of year here, are unfortunately short, but in general you can expect the same seasonal variations you would find in New England or northern Europe. Each season has a few particular oddities:
Summer’s major health issues include a major increase in gastroenteritis as well as travel-related diseases from vacations to exotic and malaria-filled southern Asia locales. The best way to prevent a vacation disaster is to do early research into your destination’s health status on the CDC Travel website; and bring a medical travel kit to help the often-inevitable issues like diarrhea. Prepare early — you may need at least a month or more to get a full course of vaccines like Japanese encephalitis, rabies or hepatitis; these are often in short supply at the expat clinics during the summer crunch.
Autumn is fairly mellow, in terms of health issues, so you should enjoy this all-too-brief moment of perfect weather by exploring Beijing’s mountains and tourist attractions.
Winter can be monotonously cold but is usually dry, with clear skies. The worst health problems usually include colds and influenza, as well as winter depression. The secret to avoiding the winter blues? Pamper yourself! Here are some of my favorite winter tips: keep your skin moist; visit a local hot springs; and take vitamin D.
Spring is a visual feast: in March we get sandstorms, and in May we have catkin pollen filling the air like snow. Sandstorms can be a health hazard to your lungs, but have a little common sense avoidance and you’ll be fine. Many Beijingers do have allergic hay fever in the spring, but quite a few actually have less symptoms than they do back at home. As 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.
Have An Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle.
I find it useful to picture Beijing as a pro-inflammatory city; we are daily bombarded with air particles and gases both indoors and outdoors, as well as from chemicals in our foods, that are pro-inflammatory — 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 cancers. It always helps to think, “what can I do to fight off this damage?” Fortunately, you can do a lot of things, especially: don’t smoke; watch your alcohol intake; and eat anti-inflammatory foods such as fruits and vegetables. Some modern foods can be decidedly pro-inflammatory and should be avoided, such as trans-fats and certain red meats like grain-fed cows.
One crucial thing to remember is that Beijing may have some unique quirks with air pollution, food issues, etc — but China’s #1 killer is the same as all over the world: heart disease. So, expats still need to focus on the basics of good body weight, exercise, proper foods, and not smoking. With exercise, you should shoot for at least 150 minutes a week of pulse-racing activity. As for which exercise, you should continue whatever you love. Beijing is filled with gyms and public parks for all sports, and there are many hiking and biking clubs as well. Also, don’t be afraid to exercise outside! As long as the AQI pollution index is reasonable (far below 200), then exercise outside is still much healthier than no exercise at all. Try to stay at least 200 meters from any major road or highway to minimize pollution.
For more information, please read my articles about exercise.
Take Care of Your Body and Soul.
I see a lot of overworked patients who rarely sleep well, are totally stressed and too busy for exercise — all of which lower people’s immune systems and set them up for illness. So I do feel that it’s crucial that we frequently check in with our heart and soul and ask ourselves, “am I happy here in Beijing? Am I neglecting something or someone, including myself?” For example, we all need about 8 hours of sleep, and if your lifestyle is constantly preventing that, you increase your risk of more frequent and severe infections, depression and anxiety, as well as more long-term problems like heart disease.
Watch Out For Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Beijing is not immune to the worldwide problem of sexually transmitted diseases, and it is common here to get exposed to bugs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. There is also an alarming resurgence of syphilis in China — plus the usual suspects like HIV, herpes, hepatitis and others. Thus, there are many reasons for you to practice safe sex — that means always wearing a condom with new partners. And be careful where you buy your condoms — there have been recent scares with poorly made counterfeits. You should buy only from the big chain stores. And don’t forget that you can carry STD infections for many years and feel perfectly healthy, but you can still infect others. That’s why we recommend routine screening tests for sexually active men and women. These tests can provide you with a lot of peace of mind, especially if you are entering a new relationship.
For more information about STDs, please view my slide show.
I hope you find these health tips useful, and I wish you and your families a wonderful time here in Beijing!
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