‘Lagom’ — the Swedish secret to a longer life?
While hyyge — the Danish notion of well-being through coziness at home — sparked a candle-lighting, fireside-chatting and teak decorating craze in 2016, the term’s time as the Scandinavian lifestyle trend of the moment may be over.
With its no-nonsense approach to healthy living, followers of Sweden’s lagom — which roughly translates to “not too much and not too little” — might just wind up with more time on earth to enjoy the view from their mid-century modern lounge chairs.
That’s the idea behind a new book called The Nordic Guide to Living 10 Years Longer: 10 Easy Tips for a Happier, Healthier Life, a new book by Swedish physician and researcher Bertil Marklund.
At a slim 130 pages, the book distills longevity research and presents it from a Scandinavian point of view.
With Nordic nations consistently landing near the top of lists ranking countries for health and well-being, Marklund concluded that “there must be something in our way to think and live that is good.”
In Sweden, citizens have a life expectancy two years longer than the OECD average. That could have something to do with the 37.5-hour work week, an average of 33 days of vacation per year and generous social safety net.
Or maybe it’s clean air, good fishing and the mandatory breaks for coffee and cake.
Lifestyle matters — a lot
For Marklund, a professor at Gothenburg University, there was a personal reason for writing a book on living longer.
“It started with my parents who passed away far too early — 10, 20 years too early,” Marklund said in an interview.
He was pleased to learn that some studies suggest lifestyle accounts for 75 per cent of how long you live, and genes just 25 per cent.
The book doesn’t claim that northern Europeans outlive everyone else by a decade; in fact, life expectancy in Sweden and Canada is the same — 82, according to the OECD Better Life Index. But Marklund approaches the lifestyle factors known to account together for as much as 10 years of life through a lens that allows us to understand how the Scandinavian nations do things differently.
“We have an expression, ‘lagom is best,'” Marklund said. The word encapsulates the Nordic distaste for doing anything to extremes, from adopting a strict low-carb diet to clocking a lot of overtime.
Many North Americans, by contrast, are notoriously bad about disconnecting from work and making time for good nutrition, rest and relaxation.
Long-term stress alone can take a heavy toll, Marklund said. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol make blood pressure and blood sugar rise. His book references a 2013 study published in BMJ that associated stress in middle-aged women to a heightened dementia risk later in life, as just one example.
Putting down the smartphone
Addressing our lack of work-life balance will come down to changing the culture of workplaces and our expectations around people being available all the time, said David Hammond, a professor in the University of Waterloo’s school of public health.
Hammond pointed to France, where a new law requiring companies to establish hours during which email is forbidden came into effect Jan. 1. But individual workers can do a lot to untether themselves from technology by establishing boundaries around their availability, he said.
“I think if you asked most people, they would admit to working more than they would like and some of that’s by choice.”
While there’s always something more that could use your attention at work, Marklund’s book encourages workers to be satisfied with “good enough.”
“It makes your life easier, cuts stress, and enables you to live a longer and happier life.”
Getting everyday exercise
As a physician and public health expert, exercise tops Marklund’s list of lifestyle factors that keep us well.
“The important and interesting thing is that it’s every day exercise, 30 minutes or more, that’s a very good base for good health,” he said.
Spending half an hour daily walking, cycling, gardening or taking the stairs goes a long way in combating the effects of a desk job, for example.
Exercise is an easy sell in the Nordic nations — Sweden even has an autumn school holiday called “sport week.”
There’s year-round exercise that the state supports with lots of leisure programs and easy access. “You can go skiing and skating everywhere,” Marklund said.
It’s something that Kari Svenneby misses about her native Norway.
“I grew up having an outdoor day every Sunday with my family. It would be like you’d go on a hike or a cross-country skiing trip,” says Svenneby, now a mother of two in Toronto, reached by CBC News on a cross-country skiing trip in Gatineau, Que.
Svenneby, who writes a blog called Active Kids Club that promotes outdoor activity for families, points to Norway’s free access to parks — no booths at the gate to collect a fee — and even privately owned greenspaces. “Allemannsretten,” or the right to roam, is an ancient tradition establishing every citizen’s equal right to access nature and it’s been enshrouded in the country’s Outdoor Recreation Act since 1957.
“It’s because the society thinks they benefit from having a healthy population,” she says.
No to fad diets
While the Mediterranean region has received much more praise for its healthy diet, the Nordic way of eating — which includes healthy doses of omega-3-rich fish, whole fruits and vegetables and not much fast food — also has a lot going for it.
Rather than an overhaul of what you eat, Marklund’s book prizes simple changes that you can implement one at a time — adding more high-fibre grains and antioxidant-rich fruits, for example.
Coffee lovers will be glad to know Marklund says three or four cups a day contributes to good health.
The critical thing is to develop a healthy diet you can stick with over time, he says. It’s an approach that discourages drinking soda but still allows room for a little cake with your coffee at work.