Veganism and fitness Down-Under, upside-down, and back-to-front

Well it looks like that is the end of my two-week holiday in Australia, spent on the Central Coast and in Sydney. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to go into any details of what an unpleasant feeling that is.

For those of you who don’t already know, I am Australian so this was a family holiday more than anything. However, it has been five years since I last made the trip over, and in that five years I have become quite a different person.

Some of the main points about my life that have changed are: I am now vegan; I spend most of my spare time in the gym and have taken up various martial arts; I live in London; and I now work full-time. I have always had a different experience whenever I have come to Australia – some trips I felt right at home, some trips I just thought about hanging out with the family, some trips I was more interested in going out and maybe making new friends, one trip I didn’t feel like I belonged there at all – so I was curious to see how I saw things this time around.

Overall it has been a great trip. I feel like I bonded with my family again, almost seamlessly despite not seeing some of them for five years or more. I really relaxed into it all and felt at home no matter where we stayed. For the purposes of this blog, I will sum up some of my observations on health, fitness and veganism in Australia, because a few things stood out and really surprised me.

Please note that as I spent my time on the Central Coast and in Sydney (in the state of New South Wales), my observations probably only stand true in those areas. If you are familiar with other areas of Australia, please do leave a comment and let us all know how you see things!

Having been vegan for four years now, all of those spent as a resident in the UK and almost three of those spent in London, I had expected a country sharing much of the same culture but with more of a sporting mindset like Australia to have embraced veganism since my last visit. However, veganism still appears to be fairly under-recognised. There is no point in using the word “vegan” most of the time – use “vegetarian with no egg or dairy” or something to that effect.

Although soy milk is readily available even in the most far-flung of places and the smallest of independent cafés, dairy-free eating isn’t widespread. Many restaurants will be able to cobble something together, but they totally lack inventiveness and knowledge of where dairy is present so I had to be very specific in all the products I could and couldn’t eat. Most of the time I ended up eating salad and chips – luckily Australia makes very good salad and they don’t skimp on the ingredients. Make sure you ask for things like avocado, sundried tomatoes, or at the very least some olive oil, to make it a bit more satisfying, give you a little more bang for your buck and add nutritional qualities.

On the fitness side of the equation, I immediately noticed that every single person I saw running had proper running shoes. They may not have been the right shoes for them, they may have been too old, but everyone had made a conscious decision that they were going to take up running and get the appropriate gear. Having worked in a running shop, I can confirm that this is an area that still needs a huge amount of work in the UK. People would come in dragging their feet, wanting the cheapest shoe they could get, and wanting the “least trainer-like looking shoe” they could find. I had so many arguments with customers who balked at the best shoes for them because they were “too bright”. Many of the runners wore this season’s brightly-coloured shoes and kit and the majority of them also had at least one item of technical clothing – none of the 1980s faded gym shorts and worn-down plimsols that I see being worn in London. This is doubly surprising as sports kit is very expensive in Australia – you’re looking at about 30% more than you would pay in the UK, but this is partly due to the exchange rate at the moment. Either way, the UK needs to wake up and stop being such a cheapskate, the need to exercise isn’t going away so we need to start investing properly in our health and sometimes buying some nice new kit actually does help – both technically and psychologically!

Another aspect of the fitness culture that I really like is that people seem to play a lot of team sports. Driving past various sports pitches on a Friday night, they were all floodlit and busy. Friday night is sports night, and I think that’s just great. As someone who often trains on a Friday night, and almost every week has some reservation about whether or not Friday night is the time to be training, I would love to live in a culture where that’s the way people cut loose, rather than routinely heading to the pub for a night of alcohol-induced de-stressing.

The 24h gym craze has really taken off over there, as it is starting to in London. The main brand is called Anytime Fitness and I saw probably more than half a dozen in a couple of weeks. I visited one and though the facility was clean, well-decorated and fairly well-equipped, the personal trainers there unsurprisingly didn’t have much of a clue what they were doing, from what I saw. But that is the case everywhere in the world I believe. On the other hand, the vast majority of people there looked to be in fairly good shape – I wouldn’t be too quick to applaud this as a sign of a fitter nation, however, as Australia is second in the world for obesity rates (with the United States in first place, and the United Kingdom coming in third). Perhaps I happened to be in an area with lower obesity rates or perhaps, and this is unfortunately more likely, there has been less success motivating overweight people to take up exercise and they are staying out of the gyms altogether.

If this is the case, then the divide between the fit and the unfit is huge, as Australian supplements are much more advanced than the range of UK supplements. I can only speak for vegan supplements, but Ben has affirmed this to be the case for non-vegan sports supplements as well. Superfoods and greens powders seem to be a massive deal over there; vegan protein supplements are rarely just protein supplements, but blends of different protein sources with added nutrients of some sort. I have bought a whole bunch of different products to try, and will be reviewing them shortly, but my initial impression is why the hell not? Why just worry about protein, or just settle for a basic product, when we can get a whole range of different benefits in one? The health-conscious among us take care to eat a balanced and varied diet, so why would we take the same straight-up supplement day in day out?

Ben has been saying for a while that Australian physiotherapy is much more advanced but unfortunately I am no authority on the subject. If you want to find out more about why this is the case I’d suggest you head over to his blog and see if he has written anything on the subject. If not, leave him a comment and I’m sure he’d be happy to discuss it.

Hopefully that gives you a bit of a clearer picture, whether you are a vegan planning or hoping to keep up your fitness regimen on holiday in Australia, an Australian wondering how your world compares with life in Europe, or just curious in general.

I will be posting reviews of the different supplements I have tried out here, as well as a few selected reviews of places I ate, so stay tuned!