They used to be fat, now Finns are fit. The Guardian today majors on a profile of the society-wide, multi-faceted campaign that turned Finland from one of the world's unhealthiest nations 30 years ago into "one of the fittest countries on earth." Cycling has played a key part in the transformation, says The Guardian.

Finns ain’t like they used to be

Here’s the full link:…/0,15652,1385645,00.html

And here are some extracts:

"In the 1970s, we held the world record for heart disease, "says Pekka Puska, director of the National Institute of Public Health in Helsinki. The dubious honour was the inevitable consequence of a Finnish culture that embraced just about every risk factor for heart disease there is.

"The idea then was that a good life was a sedentary life."

Present-day Finland is a very different place. Topping the league of death shocked the government into a full-blown campaign to dramatically improve peoples’health. And it seems to have worked. The number of men dying from cardiovascular heart disease has dropped by at least 65%, with deaths from lung cancer being slashed by a similar margin. Physical activity has risen and now, Finnish men can expect to live seven years longer and women six years longer than before measures were brought in. Having come so far, Finland now finds itself in the spotlight from health officials across the world who are desperate to find out what it was the Finns got so right.

What is striking about the Finnish scheme to get people more physically active is the depth and breadth of its reach and the duration for which it has been sustained. It also hit the right tack from the off, first by selling enjoyable activities to people that happened to require physical activity, and second ensuring exercise was the cheap and easy choice to make.

"There were towns where the pubs were full of middle-aged men who seemed to do little other than drink, "says Ilkka Vuori, a fitness expert at Tampere University and ex-director of the UKK Institute Centre for Health Promotion in Tampere. "Nearly 2, 000 men in one region were either lent bikes and taken on tours, tempted into a swimming pool, or had a shot at ball games or cross-country skiing. "It was about getting ideas that would work at that kind of local level, "says Vuori.

Over the past 10 years or so, hundreds of local schemes have been set up across Finland, drawing previously inactive people into cycling, Nordic walking, cross-country skiing and ball games…But while one branch of the effort focused on getting people to exercise in their leisure time, another sought ways of weaving more exercise into people’s daily routines – a kind of exercise by stealth. In a time when people often give the excuse of not having enough time to exercise, it was seen as the only way of reaching some groups. Commuting became an obvious target, and campaigns were set up to encourage people to walk and cycle more. The public health messages being sent out were backed up by action on the ground with hundreds of kilometres of new walking and cycle paths laid down to form networks into towns and cities, and money was provided to keep them well maintained and lit at night.

Persuading people to walk and cycle more can be a delicate decision in a country such as Finland where, for more than a few months of the year, temperatures can plunge enough to make the ground icy.

The latest practical measure being brought in is the Movement Prescription Project. Based on an idea cooked up in New Zealand, it encourages GPs to prescribe physical activity to their patients along the same lines as medication. Preliminary outcomes suggest that on the advice of a GP, the elderly especially benefited, becoming five to six times more active.

[The UK] government should bring together disparate interest groups, including the Countryside Agency, that promotes walking, and Sustrans, that encourages cycling, to develop a nationwide, but locally focused strategy to encourage more physical activity.

"People always talk about not having enough time. I think that’s rubbish. If life is so busy you really can’t squeeze in a brisk walk, your life is a mess, "says Fogelholm. "If people took the amount of time they spent watching TV on one day and made it their whole week’s exercise, we’d have no problem. "

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