• Richard Brash

Why Guys Who Move Abroad Lose Weight... and Girls Put it On

I first moved to Japan from the UK nearly twenty years ago, as an Assistant English Teacher (AET) on the Japanese government's JET programme. One strength of the programme was the useful cross-cultural training that we participants received, both before and after we moved.



I remember one of the presenters telling us: Guys who move abroad tend to lose weight. Girls tend to put it on. That raised a laugh at the time. But it turned out to be my experience. I've never been heavy-set. But just a year after moving to Japan, my weight had fallen to just 67kg (just over 10 and a half stone). I'm 190 cm tall (nearly 6' 3"). That's right at the very bottom range of reasonable BMI.


This summer, I moved back to Japan for the third time. In just a few months, I've already lost 3kg in weight. I should add that I'm not trying to lose weight: it just seems to happen!


Now, I'm not going to comment on the experiences of any particular girls in this regard. But if there's a reason why the cross-cultural training presenter was right, it seems to be to do with the different ways that men and women usually manage stress. Scientific studies show that stress tends to cause women to gain weight, in a way it does not typically do for men, who may indeed lose weight instead.


The reality about cross-cultural living is that it's often that bit more stressful than being at 'home.'


Another thing that presenter told us was that we should expect to use 15% more energy just to get through daily life in a foreign culture. That was pretty much my experience too, especially in the first few months of living in Japan. I seemed to get so tired, so quickly.


Of course, things have changed since 2001, both for me (I've lived in Japan for more than seven years in total and I feel much more comfortable than I used to) and for the world (ubiquitous broadband has made a move overseas significantly less of a total cultural immersive experience than it was even two decades ago). But, there's no doubt that living overseas still carries its stresses.


As foreigners, we don't know instinctively what to do in many of the situations we find ourselves in. And as we develop experience in a foreign culture, we experience the additional stress of realising that we probably aren't responding in appropriate ways in certain circumstances, whereas before we might have been blissfully unaware of our inabilities!


Lack of linguistic facility reduces us to childish incompetence. Lack of cultural reference points means we get confused in conversations.


And of course, we miss 'home,' whatever that means for us -- family, food, friends, and the feeling of security that comes from knowing that we are accepted as 'one of them.'


All of this builds stress. Of course, not all stress is bad. It can be invigorating and stimulating. But those of us who live overseas need to find ways of managing it.


Eating more or less,

exercising more or less,

socialising more or less -- all of these voluntary or involuntary responses to stress can affect our physical and mental health, sometimes more than we realise.


In our COVID world, the stresses of living overseas are sometimes compounded. All those who live in foreign lands, especially where the language and culture are markedly different from 'home,' need to take care of ourselves - and others around us - if we're to survive, and even flourish.


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