Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Healthy Living - The Estonian Way!

Last year, Alma Kaarma, a member of my extended family passed away in Estonia at the ripe old age of 99. She was just one year shy of reaching the magic milestone of 100. No doubt Alma experienced much during her lifetime and her sound health practices contributed to her longevity.  

Estonians may not perceive themselves to be a healthy nation but in many ways they are. The older generation in particular, who still keep to traditional ways, eat natural foods and abstain from smoking and excess alcohol consumption have the potential to reach 100. Sadly, it has become the norm in society to eat large quantities of processed foods. These "foods" are laced with chemicals and additives designed to make the foods last longer but not those of us who eat them. The sooner we cut back on these processed convenience foods and eat naturally the healthier we will be.

My father is undoubtedly the healthiest Estonian I know. By no means would he consider himself a health freak as he enjoys his daily coffees and pastries etc. but he balances it out with healthy eating and exercise. Over the years he has developed some very good health habits that simply come naturally to him. Every day he eats at least 3-4 pieces of fresh fruit ( he buys apples and oranges by the boxful and in the summertime trays of mangoes, peaches and nectarines) and at dinnertime meals are usually home made and prepared from scratch.  My father lives a very active lifestyle, he does lots of natural movement (walking) and when he comes home from work he automatically has a handful of almonds, sunflower seeds and sultanas and may snack on the occasional piece of dark chocolate. Having a close and positive social network has been proven to have excellent health benefits (check out the Blue Zones).With six children my father always has visitors and on Sunday afternoons he can often be found in the backyard enjoying a drink and a laugh with his neighbours. My father has always said to me "you can enjoy most things in life in moderation." Very true!

Typically people live a long life because of the conscious or unconscious health habits which they practise on a daily basis. Estonians have many healthy life practices, they just need to ensure they make their health a priority and avoid practices which are harmful.  Here are six examples of healthy cultural habits which are part of Estonian life:

1. Estonian forests are full of wild berries and mushrooms.
These extremely healthy and natural foods have sustained Estonians for thousands of years and continue to do so to this day.  Few countries in Europe can boast that more than half their territories are covered with forests. Nearly every Estonian home is close to a forest.

2. Most Estonians know someone who owns a farm.
It is not uncommon for Estonians to buy or trade for produce from someone they know.  Whether it's fresh eggs, milk, honey or other produce, these people know precisely where their food comes from. It's usually a much cheaper and healthier option.

3.  Estonians love apples.
The great majority of Estonian homes have at least one apple tree (õunapuu) in the garden. Apples are an excellent source of dietary fibre and vitamin C and have been an Estonian staple for centuries. Many traditional Estonian deserts have apples as a primary ingredient.

4.  Estonians have enjoyed the benefits of saunas since the early 13th Century and no home is complete without one.
Saunas offer numerous health benefits including boosting your heart and lungs, rejuvenating your skin, speeding up your metabolism and relieving the burden on your kidneys.

5. Estonians retreat to the countryside for their holidays.
They may not travel internationally as frequently as some nationalities but they don't always need to. Most Estonians own their own country house or have someone in their family who does.  Estonians love nothing more than to relax and unwind in the tranquillity of the countryside.  Much of this time is spent outdoors during the very long summer days with the house itself simply being a place to sleep in.

6.  Estonians love nature. 
If you ask Estonians what they like to do in their free time the answer will usually be something relating to nature.  Estonia's dense forests, islands and national parks offer numerous opportunities for outdoor pursuits. Whether its hiking, skiing, cycling or fishing - every Estonian has his or her favourite. Estonia has been declared to have the cleanest air in the world by the World Health Organisation thanks to its forests and relatively low levels of industrial pollution. The health benefits of spending time in nature are enormous.