From fat to fit: how did the Finns do it?

Finland in the 60s. Men in the country had the highest heart disease rate in the world. Bad eating habits (who said vegetables are for humans?), not much exercise, smoking. The mortality rate of the Finns was considerably higher than of the other Nordic people (even double for some age groups). The population was born healthy but became sick. As people of that time provocatively said, “the healthiest babies in the world grew up to become the sickest adults”. That was a national disgrace for the Finns.

Things have changed now. Like a fit armageddon. 2019 find the Finns to be the fittest people in the world (along with the Ugandans). It’s like they said “whoa, we need to put an end to this”. And they did it. They decided to eat better, smoke less but most importantly exercise more. Focus on exercise was key to this turnaround.

Read on to find out what made the Finns go “from fat to fit” and how you can improve your physical health too.

What is environmental conditioning?

Wow! That’s a term. It is actually much simpler than it sounds. As people spend more and more time indoors, their bodies get used to a stable temperature all day long. Sometimes, even all year round, be it winter or summer. Blame it on the A/C! Experts say that putting the body to extremes can have amazing effects on one’s health and wellbeing. Don’t get us wrong. Although experts suggest going to high altitudes places too, that is a bit too extreme. Let’s stick to the more normal extremes. Like allowing your body in very hot and very cold conditions.

Bingo! Here come the Finns. First, a sauna session and then a dip into the freezing (frozen) water. Going from hot to cold and vice versa can help with blood pressure, metabolism (em… weight loss) and the immune system. So, do it like the Finns. Sauna is really sacred in Finland. As well as swimming in the icy water after the sauna. No wonder you often see naked Finns (with a towel at best) running from a sauna, through the snow, to the nearest freezing water.

How can you stay fit at school or work?

Yes, you can. In Finland they do it. Helping employees to stay fit is an investment. Really? Experts have measured and concluded that the money spent by businesses for their employees’ health and wellbeing come back at a 6 fold rate. Such expenses are gym vouchers, saunas and workout facilities at their premises. Employees can get fitter and healthier. This improves their productivity, decreases sick days and boosts the psychology in the office.

The case is the same in Finnish schools too. Not only the teachers urge pupils to spend time outdoors, playing (yup, in winter temperatures too), but they also plan to abolish desks from classrooms too. Learning and socializing may be even more fun (and healthy) when done on a constant movement: from the floor to the windows to see nature or the walls to write and draw. Cool!

What is all the fuzz about Nordic walking?

It all started in Finland in the 60s, by visionary physical education teacher Leena Jääskeläinen. She introduced walking with ski poles as an activity in her lessons at school. Then this took off and became part of the curriculum. Nordic walking (although originating solely from Finland) is actually walking with the help of ski poles. No need for snow. You can do it while walking on the ground or the street. It works. And it can work wonders as you burn way more calories versus traditional walking and it is also better for the muscles. It trains almost all parts of the body while protecting them from injuries. Plus, your walking speed increases substantially and it’s fun!

Top-5 fit tips from Finland

  1. Don’t diet. Your nutrition must be balanced. Look at the Finns’ traditional diet: vegetables, meat, fish. Oh, berries (of all kinds) and mushrooms too.
  2. Enjoy exercise. Like with Nordic walking. It is fun and there are clubs and associations all around the world.
  3. Good sleep. Although the Finns drink too much coffee, they prioritize a good night’s sleep. They actually are among the three countries that sleep the most in the world! Good for the brain cells too.
  4. Be in nature. The more you are in nature, the more physical you get. Don’t limit your workout in a gym.
  5. Prioritize health and fitness. You read what happened when they said “enough is enough with the Finns’ bad health”. They prioritized and changed it. Do it too!
Image: Vastavalo / Petri Jauhiainen