Healthography: Where health and geography intertwine

Meredith Oldham, Features Editor

Your medical treatment can vary greatly based on where you are in the world, but new studies show that your health can also vary greatly based on your geographic location as well.

What does geography have to do with health exactly? If you look up healthiest countries in the world, the same countries show up over and over again and even more curiously, many of these nations are within the same regions of the world.

As far as studies measuring the healthiness of nations, science seems to be split with some pronouncing Scandinavian nations the healthiest and others pronouncing East Asian nations like Japan and Singapore (technically a city-state) the healthiest.

Let’s start with Scandinavia. They experience long cold winters. But doesn’t the cold weather make you ill?

Wrong. It’s a common myth that being in the cold makes you ill, but while cold weather may lead to shorter breaths, triggering asthma, there’s no science behind cold weather actually making you sick. Instead, the spike in illness during winter can be attributed to poor air quality indoors, the contrast of indoor and outdoor temperatures, and heated indoor areas serving as breeding areas for germs.

Unlike Americans who tend to spend much of the winter (short in comparison to those in Scandinavia) indoors, cold weather does not stop Scandinavians from going outdoors. In Sweden, at least 50% of people partake in regularly in outdoor cardiovascular activity during the winter months. This may not sound like much, but compared to nations in other parts of the world, this percentage is incredible, even compared to nations who experience mild winters.

It’s not just the Scandinavian attitude that contributes to health though, exercising outdoors in the winter is also beneficial to the body. Cold weather exercise strengthens your heart, burns more calories, gives you some Vitamin D (which can be important  in the winter months), and leads to increased happiness, which– believe it or not– can also have a great impact on your health.

Nestled between snow-covered mountains on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, the tiny town of Longyearbyen is the closest permanent settlement to the North Pole. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)
Nestled between snow-covered mountains on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, the tiny town of Longyearbyen is the closest permanent settlement to the North Pole. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

Now let’s move to the East Asian countries. Japan is consistently has the highest life expectancy (average of around 84) in the world with nations like Singapore and South Korea not far behind (all well above the United States).

Unlike Scandinavia, many studies have attributed the health in these East Asian nations to diet rather than exercise. East Asian nations consume more of both seafood (55.7kg/capita in Japan!) and tea than most other parts of the world, which are both foods known for their health benefits increasing longevity.

On the other hand, like Scandinavia, many East Asian nations (primarily Japan) also put a great emphasis on spending time in nature. The Japanese practice forest therapy (absorbing the healing power of nature through walks in nature) and recognize a National Mountain Day, which are just a couple ways the nation promotes going outdoors. And again spending time outdoors is a great source of Vitamin D, increases happiness levels, and even may increase cognitive and creative brain function.

So does climate affect health? Not exactly. These healthy regions of the world not only have cultures of healthy lifestyles but are also pretty wealthy. Yes, weather may play some role (those Scandinavians are burning a lot of calories playing the snow after all) but it comes down to the nation itself. While being a wealthy nation isn’t everything when it comes to health (Japanese culture’s emphasis on nature plays a key role), it is important that the nation has the resources to support health-related programs.

But even so, there are ways we can all stay healthy despite the weather, whatever it may be. Spending time outdoors, exercising regularly, and eating foods in moderation all contribute your overall happiness and healthiness. So make like a Swede and brave the cold weather! Your body will thank you for it.