Healthy habits we can learn from the healthiest people in the world

Posted on June 7, 2017 by Helen Field

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How can we be healthier?

The UK is number 23 in the 50 healthiest countries, taking into account life expectancy, high blood pressure, malnutrition, use of tobacco, clean water availability, and causes of death. Brits, alongside Americans and Canadians, seem to suffer from higher blood pressure and cholesterol, and mental ill health. So what can we do about it?

This blog explores the healthy habits of the top five healthiest countries, as listed in the 2017 Healthiest Country Index released in March. Maybe we can take some inspiration from their healthy ways of living to enhance our own?

Italy - where fresh, local flavours and relaxing mealtimes take precedence

Italy's home to some of the longest living people, according to The Bloomberg Global Health Index. Why are Italians rated as the healthiest people in the world? Maybe it's because their whole culture is based around things that make them feel good. A traditional family gathering is about relaxing with family and friends, and enjoying the simple flavours of fresh local food, savoured over a laidback lunch in the sun.

There's a lot of buzz around the Mediterranean diet and the benefits you can reap from freshly harvested vegetables, lean meats, plenty of fish, and olive oil. With fewer preservatives, home cooking is at the centre of Italian life.

In contrast, our English eating culture now seems to have more emphasis on easier, cheaper, faster, and more convenient food, with a longer shelf life - and many preservatives. It sometimes feels like there's no time to stop and eat. Have you ever spent your lunchtime scoffing down fast-food on the way back to work or home, while juggling email alerts and phone calls in the process? Perhaps you need a touch of Italian inspiration

Live like an Italian:

  • Have leisurely, seated mealtimes - hide your phone away and enjoy the experience of tasting your food and watching the world go by¿
  • Include Italian staple foods: fruit, vegetables, pasta, fresh bread, rice, beans, nuts, and fish or seafood - which is preferred to meat
  • Drizzle a little olive oil on your meal - or as a salad dressing - with a seasoning of salt, or more usually black pepper, herbs and garlic
  • Have small amounts of full fat dairy, meat and eggs
  • Drink coffee without milk after 11am. Milky coffees like cappuccino aren't popular after morning as they're a breakfast drink. A 'normal' coffee in Italy is a single espresso which they have in small measures throughout the day. Oh, and 'instant coffee' is probably unheard of
  • Stick to small portions
  • Take a stroll - or a 'passeggiata' after dinner instead of watching TV
  • Treat lunch as your main meal of the day and try to have a lighter evening meal
  • Walk if you can, rather than driving

Iceland - where healing hot springs nourish mind and body

It's a cold place, so working closely together and spending time getting to know each other helps keep spirits high. Being out in the open air is known for its wellbeing benefits, and Icelanders know how to take full advantage. Iceland boasts some of the purest water in the world, and is dotted all over with soothing natural hot springs to bathe in. They're full of minerals which are known for their healing properties.

Areas like the Blue Lagoon have low levels of pollution so air is cleaner than in many other parts of the world. Iceland follows strict government environmental regulations, which leads it to producing very pure food. A long-standing history of grass-fed cows means milk, butter, cheese and skyr yogurt are rich in nutrients. Although growing season is short, Icelanders use greenhouses without the need for lots of pesticides.
Fresh fish are a big part of the Icelandic diet. They mostly eat haddock, plaice, halibut, herring, and shrimp.

Live like an Icelander:

  • Get your protein fix with wholesome skyr from supermarkets like Aldi, Waitrose and Sainsbury's
  • Eat lean lamb, and plenty of fish including cod, haddock and herring, and seafood
  • Don't let the cold bother you - try grilling lamb or fish on open coals outside
  • Swim, or relax regularly in a Jacuzzi, or hot bath
  • Try growing your own vegetables in a greenhouse with as few pesticides as possible
  • Don't let the cold weather keep you indoors. Wrap up warm and get out and about

Switzerland - where people thrive on wellbeing

Switzerland focuses on investing in its people. Like the Icelanders, they pride themselves on working together to make their society as happy a place as possible.
What about their food? At lunchtime they tend to have hot meals like a ragout. 12pm to 1pm is dedicated to rest and relaxation, so loud noises are not allowed! It's even considered rude to call someone during this time. The evening dinner consists of bread, cheese, honey, meats, jams and a coffee or tea.

Talent and innovation are well respected. A stunning 86 percent of adults aged 25-64 have achieved a qualification equal to a high school degree, topping the global OECD average of 74 percent.

The Swiss really seem to take pride in their transport, with one of the safest and most efficient transport systems in the world. If you have to travel, why not do it in an enjoyable way? Scenic train journeys on The Bernina Express and Glacier Express are undoubtedly good for your wellbeing. These eco-friendly trains have panoramic windows to ensure you get the best eye-full you can of the incredible dominating mountains and sparkling lakes.

Live like a Switzer:

  • Walk everywhere - or take the cleanest form of transport you can
  • Look around you and take-in the scenery
  • Be aware of other people and how your noise may disturb them 
  • Feed your mind with goodness as well as your body - wellbeing is vital. Try surrounding yourself with inspiration and things that interest you 
  • Have your hot meal at lunchtime and a lighter meal in the evening around 6pm or 7pm
  • Have a restful, quiet lunchtime without your mobile

Singapore - where people eat for enjoyment

Described as safe, clean and green, Singaporeans live a work hard, play hard lifestyle.
Eating is a national pastime in Singapore. They have three meals a-day plus a midnight supper, usually at weekends. A traditional belief is that food is 'heaty' or 'cooling' and that having too much of one type of food causes imbalance in the body, which affects health. Singapore promotes healthy eating in places of work, schools and childcare centres.

Early morning exercises are a regular thing, whatever age. You'll find them up and about at sunrise doing tai chi or jogging in parks and gardens. But sedentary lifestyles haven't only affected the UK. 10 years ago, Singaporeans generally weren't as active. 'Lack of time' was the top reason for this in a survey carried out by the National Sports Participation Survey, so the Health Promotion Board tackled it by introducing free fitness programmes in gyms, malls and parks, making it easier for Singaporeans to get moving more often.

And, like most Asian countries, Singaporeans look after their parents in later life.

Live like a Singaporean:

  • Start the day with exercise - stretching, jogging, bike riding, whatever makes you feel energised and ready to embrace the day
  • Enjoy what you eat - take time to focus on and enjoy the different flavours and textures
  • Consider how eating a balanced  diet can affect your body in a positive way
  • Work hard, play hard!

Australia - where every day is a celebration of living

Perhaps the laid-back feel of Australians comes from their rich outdoor lifestyle. From barbeques on the beach or at the park, to playing sport and having fun at festivals - these people know how to enjoy the great outdoors.

Australians are well known for their passion for sport, namely Australian Rules Football. It's a great bonding opportunity for the diverse cultures they have in their communities. The most popular sports are cricket, Australian Rules Football, and rugby.

Australians, like many other cultures, seem to enjoy a good party. There are dozens of carnivals and festivals throughout the year, like Australia Day which involves tons of celebration activities on water as well as community breakfasts, beach parties, sporting events and parades. It's regarded as a day to relax with family and friends.

Aboriginal art is a big part of Australian heritage and influences modern art with its dot painting and pattern making. Images tell stories of myths and legends using natural pigments taken from soft rocks, chewed bark, and white clay for instance.

Live like an Australian:

  • Enjoy the fresh air by getting out and about
  • Get sporty - join a sports club or just have a simple bat and ball session with a friend regularly
  • Take time to celebrate occasions and socialise with friends and family
  • Eat fresh seasonal vegetables, fish, or meats
  • Set your creativity free with some relaxing aboriginal-style dot painting on a rock or leaf

A healthy pick 'n' mix

Which healthy habits inspire you? Maybe there's one habit from the Icelanders, a couple from the Italians?

There seems to be a pattern throughout these top five healthiest countries: eating healthy fresh food, taking regular exercise, and relaxing. Hectic lifestyles can make it more difficult to do these things. In countries like Australia, sport for instance is woven into their culture. Other countries like Singapore coax people into a healthier lifestyle by offering free fitness programmes, so it can become part of normal life.

We can try and fit healthier habits into our lives by making sure we're eating fresh, pure food, getting a good amount of exercise, and doing things which make us happy and relaxed. That way we're likely to live healthier, happier and possibly longer lives.

Discover more tips on how to get healthier and relax in these blogs:

Finding more time to read
Helpful tips to beat stress and feel more relaxed
Small changes to make your 2017 a little healthier

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