A personal trainer and health practitioner with extensive experience in Asia and expat communities brings his expertise to Ho Chi Minh City. Photos by Linh Phanroy.

What are some of the biggest setbacks expats tend to have when getting in shape?
The biggest thing is adapting to their dietary habits, not having the same familiarity with food over here. And in many expat communities, people generally have more expendable income that they can spend on eating out, but the quality of food is unknown and they don’t really know what’s in it. There is also a lot of misinformation and that leads to incorrect training and poor diet, which in turn can lead to overtraining and undereating, which results in someone feeling awful. Getting healthy should never feel bad.

How can you overcome these obstacles?
The biggest thing we come across is that people are looking for a quick fix. The people that are successful realise that getting healthy is a lifestyle change. It’s more about how you approach it and finding what matches that person. If you automatically choose a system where you can’t keep going, you’re going to fail.

Are there any unique challenges from living in Southeast Asia when it comes to fitness, and ways around them?
Alcohol is a big one, because it is so cheap. Dehydration too. Quite often people mistake hunger for dehydration. The other is sugar. It’s added to everything here. MSG can cause a lot of problems as well. It has been related to depression, brain damage and it’s been shown to create behaviour disorders. But also living in Asia is fantastic because there are an abundance of coconuts and coconuts are so good for us. They’re antibacterial, they have great electrolytes, there’s a little bit of energy with natural sugars, they’re just perfect. The meat is great as well. It’s high in saturated fat, which is also good for us.

You say alcohol is a big problem, but there is no denying expats like to drink. Is there any way to balance drinking with a healthy lifestyle?
Let’s face it, if you want ideal health alcohol is not something you want to be having. But you can work it in and have a balanced social life. It comes down to understanding what you’re actually putting into your body and how your body deals with that. One of the best things you can do to detox the gains of alcohol is to drink green tea. It’s so good because it’s been proven to protect the liver from alcohol. If you know you’re going to have a big night, drink green tea throughout the day, and have a workout before going out.

What are some common misconceptions people believe when they are trying to get in shape?
More exercise is better. A lot of people will say, “I’m feeling crap and I want to feel healthier so I’m going to go to the gym and run 60 minutes on a treadmill as hard as I can and get as fit as I can.” But what they don’t understand is that exercise is an actual stress on your body, you’re breaking down your system so then it has to repair. But if your system is already unhealthy and you’re exercising on top of that, you’re just putting your body under more and more stress. So the first thing to do is work inwards; get your nutrition right, get your body actually working well. Look at improving your internal environment before exercising and putting more stress on yourself.

In a city where everything can be delivered to your door for cheap, what are some good, easy ways to develop and maintain healthy eating habits?
It’s as easy as making a choice to get healthy. The problem is, is that most of us are chained to our bad habits. Our habits can become who we are, so changing them is the most difficult thing. We are constantly rebuilding our body from our food, which is why our nutrition is so important. You will never out-exercise a bad diet.

Phil Kelly is AsiaLIFE’s newest columnist and his health and fitness column will appear in the back of the magazine starting in March. He can be contacted through his website, Phil-kelly.com.