Time and again, we hear back from readers looking for a healthier lifestyle overseas. So in this year’s Annual Global Retirement Index, we’ve added a Healthy Lifestyle category.
Finding a healthier retirement abroad is a key consideration for many expats. And while many countries on our beat scored strongly in this regard, Costa Rica earned top marks.
“We eat food with a lot less preservatives. The water doesn’t have fluoride in it. We walk a lot more and get more fresh air. It’s been great for our health,” says expat Rob Evans. Rob has lost 50 pounds since moving to Costa Rica’s Central Valley with his wife Jeni in 2014.
You can live a healthy lifestyle in many of the top 23 havens featured in this year’s Global Retirement Index. In countries like Nicaragua, Panama, and Ecuador (who were runners up in this category), you’ll find plentiful fresh air and produce. “The great climate, fresh air, fresh food, and walking two to six miles a day has greatly improved our health,” says Denver Gray of his new life in beach-town Ecuador.
See below for more on the top four countries in the world where you can enjoy a healthy lifestyle.
A Healthy Diet in Costa Rica
Many expats report losing 30 to 40 pounds in their first year in Costa Rica. It’s a great perk of expat life. But what’s the cause? Two reasons: they are more active and they have a better diet. It’s all part of the healthy lifestyle you can easily adopt if you move to Costa Rica.
Warm weather year-round allows you to exercise outside any day of the year. And there is no shortage of outdoor activities. You can walk or hike on the beach, in the jungle, up the side of a mountain, through your neighborhood, or around town. You can also ride your bike (this is how many expats get around many beach towns), surf, kayak, and stand-up paddle board. Most expat communities also have gyms, with affordable membership fees, not to mention personal trainers, yoga teachers, and other fitness instructors. A big benefit of staying active in Costa Rica? You’re always surrounded by the country’s natural beauty.
The second part of the healthy lifestyle in Costa Rica is the diet. You can’t help but eat better when you have such good access to fresh fruits and vegetables, including lots of natural produce. You can get things you know from North America: broccoli, lettuce, kale, onions, and more. But there are also unfamiliar tropical fruits and veggies to enjoy: chayote (similar to squash), camote (a white sweet potato), guanabana (a sweet fruit usually made into smoothies), and more.
Every Costa Rican town has a weekly feria, or farmers’ market. A couple can fill their fridge for about $30 for the week. Processed foods, food that comes in a box, and those items imported from the U.S. and Europe tend to be expensive, but are available at select stores if you have a craving. But most expats find that they buy those foods a lot less and focus on a diet of fresh foods prepared at home.—Jason Holland
Get Outside in the 300 Days of Sunshine in Panama
At my favorite market in Panama, people are buying bags of rich dark potting soil, exotic fruit, colorful plants and flowers, and a whole lot more. This month, mouth-watering watermelons are being diced up and added to pineapple, papaya, kiwi and more for $2 a tub. Bags filled with blood red rambutan are $1 for about two dozen. The hard, spiky exterior hides a soft, pulpy flesh. I often put these in a bowl on my dining room table…an edible centerpiece.
An abundance of inexpensive fruit is just one of the perks of living in Panama. I hardly ever ate fruit when I was living in the States. Sure, the grocery stores were full of options…they carried everything imaginable. But in Panama fresh fruit (and vegetables) are more accessible than fast food and quick meals.
Here, there are small markets and stalls in all kinds of places…even along the side of the PanAmerican Highway. Hawkers even sell bagged produce on the capital’s busy streets. I can roll down my car window and buy fresh from the farm. Twenty tomatoes or limes for $1…all the ingredients for homemade salsa. It’s actually faster and cheaper than a wait at the McDonald’s drive-in. (Though there are relatively few outside the capital, Panama City features a variety of popular chains.)
Fish and seafood are also incredibly easy to come by. Many of my friends now eat more fish than any other protein, because it’s so good and fresh. The great food is part of the reason why so many expats say their health improved after moving here…with little effort on their part. I’ve had people tell me their blood pressure dropped by as much as 10 points. No special diet, just life in Panama.
Add to that something like 300 sunny mornings a year, vast national parks and preserved rainforests, and two coastlines just beckoning with water activities like surfing, paddleboarding, snorkeling and more. People here live life outdoors…and often that means a bit less time spent sitting in front of a television or computer screen.
Best of all, people here are accustomed to a slower pace of life. A favorite answer to questions is cero estrés, which means “zero stress.” Don’t worry, it will be fine. Come here and you’ll find yourself adapting before you know it. Soon you feel more relaxed…and who knows, you may well find your blood pressure dropping, too.—Jessica Ramesch
The Biggest Bonus of Living in Nicaragua
When moving abroad, people often think about the lower cost of living, healthcare, and what they’ll do first in their new county…but there’s a huge benefit that most don’t consider. In Nicaragua you’ll live a much healthier lifestyle, almost by default.
To begin with, you’ll find yourself walking a lot more. Since most local people don’t own cars, Nicaraguan cities are a walker’s paradise. With that comes an efficient public bus system, shuttle and taxi services.
“It is often less money to pay for taxis than to own a car,” said expat Erick Bowden. “And not having a car forces you to do more walking, which is the best exercise.”
You’ll eat better in Nicaragua, too. All the produce you buy from the farmers in the central marketplace of any city is natural. The oranges may not be as plump and bright orange as you are used to (from the chemicals that make them that way), but they are ripe and fresh from the tree and the sweetest oranges you’ll ever have. The same goes for meat and poultry products. Cows, chickens, and pigs walk around wherever they feel like it—real free-range—and you’ll taste the difference immediately. And fresh fish caught the same morning costs between $3 and $4 a pound.
These factors, combined with the lack of stress thanks to a low cost of living, make for naturally healthy, day-to-day living. In fact, I have friends here who have gotten off meds they were taking for 15 to 20 years back home in the U.S. or Canada. This includes statin drugs, blood pressure medicine, allergy medicine, and blood thinners. And the result? Their stats are back to normal, they have more energy, and feel better than ever.—Bonnie Hayman
Healthy Living is Easy in Ecuador
“You won’t find better weather anywhere in the world,” said a friend after his visit to Ecuador. And he’s right. Imagine…being right smack dab on the equator but with elevations ranging from sea level to 14,000 feet above.
That makes for an extraordinary climate and a year-round growing cycle for a huge variety of healthy fruits and vegetables. From avocados to zapotes, Ecuador has it all. (A zapote, sometimes spelled sapote, is a small, brown, vitamin-C-rich fruit with an orange fleshy interior, especially tasty in fruit shakes and ice cream.)
Thanks to this ideal climate, you’ll spend a lot of time outdoors in Ecuador. Walking is a pleasure and there’s no doubt you’ll put more miles on your hiking shoes than you ever thought possible. Most expats, in fact, don’t own a car, preferring to walk about their daily errands and to visit friends or attend cultural events.
The beautiful scenery is a plus…from the sparkling blue Pacific Ocean to the majestic Andes Mountains and everything in between, including the spectacular Amazon basin on the eastern side on the Andes.
And if you like to dine out, you’ll find the food is not only affordable, but typically it’s made from scratch, utilizing that plentiful local produce. For example, in the Sierra region, el menu del dia (the set menu of the day) at a typical restaurant might include a starter of popcorn or corn nuts, always accompanied by a fresh, spicy aji salsa, followed by a plate heaped with salad, vegetables, rice and potatoes and meat of some kind (usually pork or chicken). You’ll get a glass of freshly squeezed juice and for dessert, usually fruit or ice cream. All this might set you back just $2.50. (As healthy for your pocketbook as it is for your body.)—Suzan Haskins
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