This article is written by Dr Elspeth Bisson. We realised we both loved the Scandinavian approach to health and fitness and spent a long time chatting about why us Brits should be more Scandi! She’s looked into their lifestyle in more detail to see whether their reputation lives up to the reality! It’s an interesting read- enjoy!
Running can be the best way to explore a new place; easily covering a wider area than walking or public transport. I found Denmark and Sweden particularly easy to run in as a tourist – probably because I blended in with all the locals exercising! Scandinavia, where leading an active lifestyle is the norm, is known to be one of the healthiest regions in the world. But does the reputation live up to the reality, and could we all benefit from being a bit more Scandinavian?!
How active should we be?
The World Health Organisation cites physical inactivity as one of the ten leading causes of premature death worldwide. It advises that everyone should take 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week. For example, brisk walking or cycling. Unfortunately, a lot of Brits don’t do this. In fact, The British Heart Foundation revealed that over a third of the UK population fail to reach this target, and only 14% of the population take regular exercise. This figure lags way behind the Scandinavian nations where around 30% of the population take regular exercise. The subsequent damage to health costs the UK a staggering £1.2billion a year!
So, what are they doing differently in Scandinavia?
Incorporating exercise into our day to day lives is a logical way to increase physical activity- which is exactly what they’re doing. For example, the Danish Government recently invested huge amounts of money into cycling infrastructure and initiatives. This has been instrumental in encouraging ‘active transport’ to improve health. In fact, 90% of Danes own a bike! There are similar incentives in the UK, such as the ‘cycle2work’ scheme. That said, only 40% of Brits own a bike (I’m not one of them!) and cycling makes up only 2.8% of commuting to work.
Scandinavians also make the most of what’s on their doorstep and embrace “the great outdoors” as much as possible. When I was in Stockholm and Copenhagen, all the exercise I did was outside (even at temperatures close to zero degrees!). Physical activity and exposure to nature have been shown to be synergistic (independently beneficial but even better when combined) in improving health. A 2013 study showed that when exercising outdoors compared to indoors, individuals were able to exercise for longer without realising it. This ‘green exercise’ reportedly altered people’s mindsets – boosting mood (happiness!), self-esteem and reducing stress.
Open access to ‘the great outdoors’ is commonplace in Scandinavia. In Sweden, “allemansrätten” translates as the public right to roam anywhere in the countryside whilst respecting the principle of “Don’t disturb – Don’t destroy”. This means that the entire countryside is basically its own public footpath. Everyone is at liberty to do what they want, from trail running, to camping or even picking wildflowers! Historically, this was the same across Europe, however, rights have now significantly reduced. In England and Wales, all public footpaths are formally mapped. Nevertheless, the UK has vast areas of accessible countryside we should be using more often. Amazingly, even London is made up of 47% green space with ongoing government plans to improve ‘London’s Great Outdoors’.
Above and below, Swedish lake: Hellasgården, just outside Stockholm, I visited in February and August. There was no entry fee and the incredible setting was shared by everyone enjoying various activities from skating to swimming, depending on the season.
Furthermore, Scandinavian doctors are great at promoting physical activity. A study showed that 90% of Danish GPs promote physical activity to patients on a weekly basis. Interestingly, if medical practitioners exercise themselves, they are much more likely to promote exercise to patients. Along-side or independently of medication, it is hard not to see the benefit of such a low-cost intervention to improve both physical and mental health.
Does this exercise make Scandinavians happier, as well as healthier?
Well, it turns out it just might do. The World Happiness Report rates happiness on multiple factors including freedom, health and good governance, and recognises mental illness as the biggest single source of misery. It seems that the Scandinavian countries are doing something right, as they all ranked within the top 10 of the 2017 report. We know that exercise improves physical and mental health, so it’s fair to assume that their love of exercise and the great outdoors is having a positive impact on their mental health and making them happier.
So, should we be a bit more Scandinavian?!
I think the answer is a definite yes! The Swedish principle of Lagom, means just the right amount, and is a great one to follow. Being flexible and not obsessional, is essential in establishing long-term healthy lifestyle habits. In Stockholm and Copenhagen, I didn’t notice a stereotype of exerciser vs non-exerciser. Men and women of all ages are moving as part of their daily routines. Less designer gym-wear, less chemical filled energy gels. Just simple clothes and food, fresh air and exercise.
Consciously being more active day to day seems like a sensible starting block for our nation to become more active. Who knows it may even make us happier too!
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