4 Scandinavian secrets to live a happier, healthier life

From braving the cold to eating Danishes every day, here are four uniquely Scandinavian health tips said to boost your mental and physical wellbeing.

Two months ago, I moved with my family to Aarhus, Denmark’s second-biggest city.

Having heard much about the country and the Nordic lifestyle, I was looking forward to experiencing some of the weird and wonderful traditions Scandinavians swear by.

Much of Nordic culture centres around wellness and cosiness — called “hygge” in Denmark — which, if you’ve experienced the region’s winters, makes perfect sense.

Here are some things the Danes and their Scandinavian neighbours do to maintain a healthy lifestyle and good mental health.

Scandinavian health tip #1: Let kids sleep in the cold

Nordic babies sleep outside — even in sub-zero temperatures.

I once heard about a mother being apprehended in New York City for leaving her baby outside during the winter while she ate lunch with a friend.

Back then it sounded like a bizarre story: Who would do that? Won’t the kid freeze to death? What about the chance of kidnapping?

And then I came to Denmark.

Here, in front of every cafe, you are bound to see at least one pram containing a bundled infant, cocooned in a fluffy doona and wearing layers of warm clothing, mittens and a beanie.

This practice is not confined to the Danes; based on advice from the 1940s, it is common for children from all Nordic countries, aged from two weeks to two years, to take their daytime nap outside.

While there isn’t a huge amount of research confirming the health benefits of this custom, Scandinavian parents swear that their kids not only sleep longer outdoors (in temperatures ranging from minus 27 to five degrees Celsius) and eat better, but that the cold air also promotes their overall wellbeing.

Professor Ragnhild Bang Nes, senior researcher at the Institute of Public Health in Norway, says when she had her children more than 20 years ago, she was advised by doctors that children sleep better outside in the cold, fresh air.

“It was something we’ve always done in the Nordic countries,” Prof Nes says.

Scandinavian health tip #2: Eat pastries, and rye

Scandinavians aren’t shy when it comes to enjoying pastries, yet they don’t seem to pile on the kilos.

Their secret? Size; and rye bread eaten in equal amounts.

Some of the best food in the world comes from Scandinavia (especially since the rise of New Nordic Cuisine), with Denmark taking the cake.

Danish pastries, after all, are world-renowned, and they remain a firm favourite among Danes too.

Yet I was surprised to see everyone helping themselves to these delectable treats on a daily basis.

In Denmark, however, sweet treats are nothing like the ones in Australia — think a giant chocolate muffin or an enormous lamington chased down by a soft drink.

Danishes are small, usually homemade and, perhaps most importantly, shared in the company of others, which has been shown to foster social connection and make us feel happier and more satisfied with life.

These little pastries are also often interspersed with open-faced sandwiches known as smørrebrød — small, half-pieces of rye bread topped with pickled fish, cold meat, eggs, cheese or potatoes, and sometimes horseradish and onion.

Studies show rye foods are good for your gut, help to prevent blood sugar spikes, lower LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels, and help with weight loss.

Scandinavian health tip #3: Get over bad weather

“There is no bad weather, just bad clothing — so go outside.”

I’ve only been in Denmark for a few months, and I’ve already heard this quote many times.

I won’t lie. Nordic winters are brutal and for an Australian used to mild winters, having to layer up (and choose appropriate clothing) is a constant battle.

The Danes — and other Scandinavians, who actually live in colder climates than Denmark — value their outdoor time too much to give it up in the face of rain, snow or freezing temperatures, so they’ve become practically minded yet stylish individuals.

“We all know that being outside, especially in nature, is good for you, even if you don’t want to go out,” Prof Nes says.

“Norwegians especially are by far the most outdoorsy, sports-obsessed maniacs, so you’ll often see us going to our little forest cabins in the middle of winter and manually heating water for hours just to wash the dishes and bathe.”

Not only is being in nature good for you, but doing so in pretty extreme circumstances also breeds resilience which, in turn, correlates with good mental health and general wellbeing.

Scandinavian health tip #4: Strive for work-life balance

Unlike Australians, who clock up some of the longest working hours in the world, the Danes fight hard to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Not only are bosses more understanding of parents needing to duck out to pick up their kids or attend a soccer match, but generous parental leave policies across Scandinavia ensure that both mums and dads spend time with their kids, leading to greater family stability and healthier parental relationships.

When we come back, we will definitely take some of these tips on board.

No longer will I be afraid to ride a bike in the rain, or feel (too) guilty about having a daily treat.

As for our two-year-old sleeping outside? We’ll probably give that a miss.

More tips on staying well from around the world:

Written by Caroline Zielinski.