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From siestas to saunas: the 10 European wellbeing traditions everyone should try

Think of “wellness” and you may well think of Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand, Goop: modern, exclusive, quite possibly rubbish. But a lot of what would fall under that banner dates back centuries and has its roots in Europe, not California.

“There is a unique wellness culture in Europe,” says Beth McGroarty, the director of research at the Global Wellness Institute, a US nonprofit group. It dates as far back as Roman spas and the ancient Greek focus on preventing sickness, not merely treating it. “Europe has its own ancient medical thinking and wellness traditions and we don’t seem to pay any attention to them.”

The continent is also home to some of the happiest, healthiest countries in the world, although the UK doesn’t trouble the top 10. So, what can we learn from European wellness practices and traditions?

Spain: the siesta

The siesta, a short afternoon nap, is believed to have evolved in Spain to allow farmers time to rest during the hottest hours of the day. The tradition persists in the country, with work hours extending later to accommodate the break.

A large study in 2007 found that heart diseases were less prevalent among people who regularly took a 30-minute nap, while research in 2010 discovered that an afternoon snooze could improve the brain’s ability to learn.

“Even just slowing down for a short period of time allows you to disconnect from the world and subsequently boost energy, focus and creativity,” says Paul Joseph, the founder of the travel company Health and Fitness Travel.

Iceland: fish

Iceland consistently ranks highly in metrics such as life expectancy and blood pressure, placing third in Bloomberg’s 2019 healthiest country index, behind Spain and Italy.

The Nordic diet shares some similarities with the life-extending Mediterranean diet, although it is lower in fruit and vegetables, advocating moderate consumption of fat and protein along with canola oil (a type of rapeseed oil), wild berries and root vegetables.

A diet high in fresh fish, and therefore omega-3 fatty acids, is considered key to a healthy diet in Iceland. Haddock, herring and cod – including the cheeks and tongues, the most prized parts – are all dietary staples. Fermented shark is a national dish.

It is also common for Icelanders to take a daily supplement of cod-liver oil during the winter months, when it is difficult to get enough vitamin D from sunlight alone. The benefits of fish oil and omega-3 are contested, but their proponents say they relieve joint stiffness associated with arthritis and improve the condition of teeth, nails, hair and skin.

Italy: fangotherapy

Although the use of mud as a beauty treatment was documented in ancient Egypt, with clay from the banks of the Nile being applied to the face and skin to improve appearance and texture, it was popularised in Italy during Roman times – “fango” is Italian for “mud”.

From there, fangotherapy spread with the Roman empire; mud treatments and wraps remain a common spa treatment across Europe and further afield.

While different types of mud (mixed with mineral or thermal water) are said to have different properties, fangotherapy is most effective as a gentle cleansing treatment and has relaxing, anti-stress effects. These should not be sniffed at: chronic stress affects the immune system and causes high blood pressure, fatigue, poor mental health and even heart disease.

Greece: Mediterranean diet

A greek meze, featuring vegetables, pulses and breaded fish

Is there anything the Mediterranean diet can’t do? It draws together common food types and healthy habits from several southern European countries, including Greece, Spain, southern France, Portugal and Italy. As such, there is no single definition, but it is typically high in fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereals, olive oil and unsaturated fats, with moderate dairy intake.

Its benefits have been found to be remarkably wide-ranging: it has been associated with longer life expectancy, a healthier gut, better heart health, protection from disease, lower risk of depression, diabetes prevention and alleviation – and even improved athletic performance.

Finland: contrast therapy

Taking a dip in a partly frozen lake in Finland

Sauna culture exists across Europe, but it is deeply ingrained in Finland, where there is one facility for about every two people, the Finnish Sauna Society says. The traditional experience is to push yourself to your limit in a communal sauna with a very high temperature, then to immerse yourself in cold water or snow – and repeat.

The cold experience is “crucial”, says McGroarty, with the contrast between hot and cold thought to bring health benefits. She says: “It seems to have a strong impact on cardiovascular health.”

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Scientific studies have found that the effectiveness of this “contrast therapy” (such as for treating athletes’ injuries) is questionable, but the physiological effects are such that it persists regardless. As no one knows better than the Finns, it feels good to be really hot, then really cold. As such, icy plunge pools and snow rooms are popular as a chaser to heated or humid experiences at spas worldwide.

France: sophrology

Sophrology, a practice of “dynamic relaxation”, was developed by a Colombian neuropsychiatrist in the 60s, but it took root in France and Switzerland, where it remains wildly popular.

It combines eastern and western influences, meditation, breathing techniques, gentle movement, positive psychology and visualisation to give a sense of being calm and in control.

Although the practice is said to be more dynamic than mindfulness, it has similar benefits, and is said to be helpful in stress management, self-development, preparing for public speaking or even childbirth. French studies have recorded positive effects in helping cancer patients to manage their anxiety, stress and fear.

In the UK, sophrology is taught at clinics in London for about £100 an hour. In France and Switzerland, it is widely covered by health insurance, used by corporate high-flyers and professional athletes (including, reportedly, the French national rugby team) and taught in schools and hospitals.

Denmark: hygge

Couple with hot drinks by a fireplace

It is gemütlich in German and gezelligheid in Dutch; in English, you might say “smelly candles”. But it was the parallel Danish concept of hygge that launched a global lifestyle phenomenon in 2016, with concerted cosiness the suggested solution to a turbulent year of Brexit and Donald Trump.

“Hygge relates to a level of cosiness and conviviality that incites a feeling of wellbeing,” says Joseph. “The core of the practice is to live in the everyday moment and appreciate everything around you – streaming the ideas of eastern mindfulness.”

The Netherlands: uitwaaien

There is no easy English translation, but the Dutch word uitwaaien refers to spending time in wild, windy weather – usually by going for a walk or a bike ride. By replacing “bad air” with “good air”, it is believed to leave you feeling clear-headed and refreshed.

“It feels exhilarating – wind is distracting, so it’s sort of meditative, in the sense you cannot think about anything else,” says McGroarty.

Many northern European countries have an equivalent of the Japanese term shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”), which refers to the restorative effects of spending time in woodland or parks.

Time spent outdoors in any capacity has recorded benefits, such as increasing vitamin D levels, improving mood and focus, encouraging incidental exercise and possibly reducing pain. A 2018 study found that exposure to green space can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, pre-term birth, stress and high blood pressure. Even as little as two hours a week may have an effect.

Sweden: fika

Coffee house in Gothenburg, Sweden

Comparable to the western coffee break, fika is another simple Scandinavian wellness philosophy that involves slowing down to prioritise social interaction. “It is a meal or a meeting allowing for social interaction and stronger relationship bonds, increasing feelings of positivity, calm and creativity,” says Joseph.

The meeting can happen at any time of day – and “preferably several times a day”, advises the Swedish government. Although baked goods or sweets are often served, the key purpose is the social interaction.


This factors into other areas of life in Sweden. Herman Rutgers, a co-founder of the nonprofit organisation EuropeActive, notes that group exercise is popular in the country: “They like to do things in groups, to be social and to drink coffee afterwards.” The country has one of the highest rates of gym membership in the world – 21% of the population are signed up to a fitness club.

Building a social component into exercise, by taking a fitness class or working out with a friend, has been shown to increase motivation and accountability and even improve performance. A University of Aberdeen study in 2016 found that people exercised more when they did so with a friend, due to the emotional support.

Germany: the kur

The concept of “wellness tourism”, valued by Bloomberg at $639bn, began in Europe centuries ago, says McGroarty. She points to the 200-year-old German tradition of the kur: “a commitment to taking a longer break” for the purpose of wellness.

From the late 18th century until the second world war, it was common to retire to a sanatorium or a spa for a weeks- or months-long programme of rest, fresh air, bathing and steam. McGroarty likens the best-known of these destinations – Baden-Baden and Bad Ems in Germany, Bad Gastein and Bad Ischl in Austria, Bath in the UK – to “our Las Vegas of health: the places to be and to be seen”. Composers and authors would go there to work, while others would go to recover from or avoid illness.

Even today, a two- or three-week-long kur can be prescribed and even paid for through the German (and Austrian) healthcare system, in recognition of the fact that healthy, rested workers are more productive.

The idea of taking a longer break just to be well is at odds with the modern fashion for shorter, high-impact holidays – but “the pendulum will need to swing back”, says McGroarty. She predicts a trend for “wellness sabbaticals”, as people retreat for longer to recover from the busy world.

Source: TheGuardian