As we clean up the last of that fir and tinsel, we may also have another bit of mess to shed: unwanted extra pounds. The post-holiday season is the peak time to feel pretty darn bad about how we look – especially if we turn on our televisions and see how hot the rest of the world is! How do other cultures stay so slim and trim? Let’s look at the lifestyles of other countries and see what health and fitness tips we can learn from our global neighbors.
By and large it is true that if you look at cultures, Americans look fatter and lazier. But is it that we simply eat too much? Are we eating the wrong foods? Or is it just that we need to get off
our butt and get moving?
“Sixty percent of Americans are overweight or obese and, at the rate this number is increasing, it will be 86 percent by 2025. Sedentary lifestyles, poor portion control, and a high incidence
of eating fast foods are to blame,” says certified holistic lifestyle coach Uche Odiatu BA, DMD, NSCA CPT. Out of control obesity is not prevalent in countries where people eat foods in
moderation and live in health-minded communities.
Matthew Goodemote is a physical therapist and owner of Community Physical Therapy & Wellness in Gloversville, New York, and holds a Bachelors of Science Degree in Exercise Sciences. He’s
also married to a Danish woman and has witnessed first hand the Danish outlook on nutrition and fitness.
“I remember being amazed at how thin everyone seemed to be when I first went to visit. Then finally I saw an obese person on one of my first trips…when the man turned around his
T-shirt said USA. I thought that was pretty funny!”
Exercise: The Danes ride their bikes everywhere. They get groceries, go to the mall, beaches, work, and school, and visit friends by bike. Denmark roadways, including highways
close to cities, have a separate path for bikes. “I have seen 80 year olds riding to get groceries and five year olds riding to school,” says Goodemote. “I read once that there
are more bikes than people in Denmark!”
Active lifesyles: Physical activity is a normal part of life in Denmark, particularly for children. In elementary schools, the kids get as much recess as classroom time. After
school programs are on playgrounds and soccer fields instead of inside watching videos or playing with computers. Field trips for kids in Denmark are to the ocean and woods (in Denmark, the woods
are what we call parks…like Central Park in NYC), where kids can run, climb and explore. For both kids and adults, soccer goals are everywhere for anyone to use, every town and city has a
public swimming pool for laps and fun swim for kids (some even have indoor water slides), sports are easy to access, and sports or fitness clubs are rampant throughout the country.
Healthy snacking: According to Goodemote, school children get carrots and apples for snacks and that healthy foods are a normal part of Denmark culture. In contrast, American
children usually get cookies and brownies for snacks. Another healthy habit in Denmark is that meals are typically served at home; very few people eat out. Goodemote adds, “My wife and other
Danes bring food wherever they go, on trains, car trips, to the airport, etc. I am used to grabbing something from the road. Fortunately my wife brings food for our kids to eat and again it is
usually cut up fruit and veggies.”
Lesson to be learned: It is true that the Danish culture is set up for exercise and that Danes prefer sensible eating while American culture prioritizes auto transportation and
eating out. But that does not mean we can’t live an activity-oriented lifestyle. It means we need to walk or bike more and make healthy foods the norm rather than the exception.
Wonder how our Asian friends maintain a healthy weight? In addition to following a mostly plant-based diet, regular physical activity is the norm.
Exercise: Recently, I visited Macau for the first time and was surprised to discover that the city had free public fitness options! There’s many fitness trails, such as the
Small Taipa Trail 2000 around the Garden of the Lake, the Hac Sa Reservoir Fitness Circuit in Coloane, and the Hac Sa Morro Circuit. In addition, children’s play areas and fitness equipment are
available near most fitness trails. One morning, we even witnessed a group of local women joining together for a fan dance routine. It was beautiful!
Lesson to be learned: Perhaps free fitness options or public fitness options are not the norm in America, but a lesson can be learned from the people of Macau: Find exercise
wherever you can.
In Venezuela, competitive sports play an important role in people’s lives. There’s many strongly followed sports — most notably tennis, baseball and soccer (to them, football). These are not
simply fun, but serious business. In fact, sports make up an integral part of the cultural life of the Venezuelans. It’s not surprising, then, that when getting fit, a sport-like theme would apply!
Exercise: Marta Montenegro, founder of SOBeFiT Magazine, used to own and operate her own gym in Venezuela. To motivate her employees and clients, she developed a program
including a fitness contest. This was a small contest that Marta created to challenge the clients that belonged to her gym to work harder and get fit. She noticed that the more they competed
against each other, the harder they worked out and the happier they were. From here, she began SOBeFit Magazine and implemented “The Fittest Person of the Year Contest” which
had an extremely successful first year in South Florida. Marta continues to receive letters from many different types of people who at one point were as motivated as a lazy Garfield and are now
striving to do better than their best so they can join the competition this year and win.
Lesson to be learned: The message to all of us reading? Competitiveness sparks motivation! Consider that in your own family and friend activities! You can even join an intramural
or local sports league and compete your way into shape.
Perhaps true health is a matter of perception. “I am a fat athlete — a professional competitive dancer,” says Ragen Chastain, executive and artistic director of Body Positive Dance.
“Despite my perfect metabolic health, I’m considered morbidly obese and generally assumed to be lazy and unhealthy in [the American] culture.”
Different perceptions: But it’s not like that everywhere. Ragen goes on: “My mom went to Mali, West Africa with the Peace Corps a few years ago. In their culture,
bigger women are considered healthier and more beautiful. They considered me so beautiful in fact, that I received proposals every day and two men offered to buy me for an air conditioner (the
typical dowry for an African princess). My mom took one of them up on the deal (and when she left she returned the air conditioner thus nullifying the engagement) and he was quite
Research has shown that being active can benefit your health regardless of your weight. But this may apply only to people who are considered overweight yet do not have weight-related maladies, such
as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.
Lesson to be learned: No matter your weight, strive for a healthy lifestyle that includes a healthy diet and regular physical activity. And love yourself regardless of the number
on the scale or the size of your clothing.