What good-for-you strategies can we steal from our neighbors around the world? We scanned the globe for these lessons from seven of our healthiest allies.
Australia: Team Up!
Australians have a strong tradition of playing team sports: The Australian Sports Commission reports that 72 percent of people ages 15 and over are physically active at least once a week, with team sports like football and volleyball among the most popular activities. According to sports medicine researchers, when we exercise with others, the social interaction and peer accountability make us more likely to reach our health goals than if we work out alone. And here's a surprise: According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the fastest-growing team sport in the U.S. is ultimate Frisbee, a soccer/football-type game played with the classic disk. Go to upa.org/ultimate to get started.
Finland: Get Steamed
Some sources say that the sauna has been part of the Finnish tradition for more than 2,000 years, and an estimated 90 percent—or more—of Finns take a sauna once a week. Saunas aren't just for pampering: A new study determined that regular thermal therapy may help decrease your risk for diabetes. Plus, a good steam can also increase vascular function and decrease blood pressure. Want to get in on this hot health trend? One 20-minute sauna per week will leave you sufficiently steamed.
France: Say Oui to Sleep
How France remains one of the healthiest nations despite its affinity for wine-drinking and rich foods is the subject of much debate. But one explanation could be that the French get an average of 8.5 hours of sleep a day compared to Americans' 7 hours of shut-eye. In recent years, scientists have discovered strong links between chronic sleep deficit, obesity and disease. To close the sleep gap, try the gradual approach: Go to bed 15 minutes earlier than normal this week; next week, go to bed 15 minutes earlier than that, and so on, until you can wake up without the help of an alarm.
Thailand: Attitude Check
The constant frenetic traffic in Bangkok resembles that of any city with a population in the multimillions—until you notice a startling lack of road rage. Thais, whether behind the wheel or anywhere else, have a reputation for remaining relaxed, cool and friendly. According to Bangkok-based health instructor David Amornboonsuko, Thais take a holistic approach to wellbeing, balancing the physical with the spiritual. "Since Buddhism is the dominant religion in the country, it is common for monks to preach how to live a happy life amongst chaos." Mindfulness meditation, which involves focusing on the flow of your breath, is a key aspect of Buddhism. Start creating calm in your life by setting aside 5 minutes morning and night to meditate in a quiet place.
Israel: Think Outside the Cereal Box
In 2009, the World Health Organization named Israel the healthiest country on the globe. And no wonder: Obesity is low among Israelis (just over 23 percent compared to 33 percent in the U.S.) and life spans long (81 years vs. 78 for the U.S.). Credit this to a lifestyle that combines regular physical activity plus the Middle Eastern dietary sensibilities of moderation. Tap into a healthy Israeli tradition by starting your day with a breakfast of fresh salad with olives and sheep cheeses (such as feta), and fruit. Nutrition researchers have shown that replacing sugar- and carb-heavy breakfasts with a balance of dairy, fruits and vegetables provides long-lasting energy and keeps blood-sugar levels from peaks and valleys that can trigger cravings.
Philippines: Shake It Up
"Issues about health are very high in the consciousness of many Filipinos," says Maria Paz Lugay-Sales, a dietitian in Quezon City. She points to a national love of belly dancing. "In Quezon City, you see matrons with belly dancing trinkets and bells, gyrating gracefully." For more info on belly dancing classes, visit us.bellydanceclasses.net.
Norway: Take it Easy
Norwegian workers are as productive as those of other industrialized nations. But you wouldn't think so, judging from the stats: They enjoy the shortest work week (about 33 hours), fewest weeks worked (36 per year) and most leisure time (just over 25 percent of total time) compared to their global peers. More time for self and family directly links to overall life satisfaction, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and Gallup; this helps lay the foundation for greater overall health. If you can't cut back your work hours (who can?), make it a point to take all of your annual vacation days (an estimated one-third of Americans don't), resist those workaholic urges and make free time a family affair.