Europeans Live Longer. Why?

Two questions? One, did you know that people in most European nations live longer than we do in the United States? Two, do you know what nerds read when they’re bored?

Let me answer the first question by way of the second. The other day I was reading the 2015 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) health statistics, and I learned that French, Germans, Italians and Swiss outlive people in the U.S. The French, for example, live almost 4 years longer! Which as an American, led me to screw up my face and ask…

Are You Kidding Me?!

Have Europeans learned the secret to long life?

Maybe they have found the so-called “fountain of youth.” Because on a recent trip to Europe, I did see a lot of fountains. In fact, I could throw a rock and hit a fountain. But I didn’t, because standing around those fountains, both day and night, were people smoking cigarettes and having a drink. I’m being a tad facetious, but the OECD reports that people in Switzerland, Germany, France, and Italy do, indeed, smoke and drink more than do residents of the U.S. On top of that, Europeans eat more fatty foods. Take cheese, as an example. The U.S. comes in 19th place in cheese consumption. We aren’t even close to the others: Switzerland, #8; Italy, #7; Germany, #2; France, #1.

If all it takes to live longer is to eat a brick of brie washed down with a case of beer and a carton of Benson & Hedges, I expect to make it into the centenarian club, thanks to the behaviors of my youth.

People in the U.S. also spend much more money on healthcare, so increased cost does not correlate with improved health. Everything that I read made me wonder if the reason Europeans live longer revolves around 4 simple factors:

Europeans walk.

In the U.S., we have fitness facilities on every corner. And the customers tend to park as close to the entrance as possible so as to avoid walking! In Europe, however, people walk everywhere. They walk for exercise as well as fun. They walk to the market every day, and their kids walk to school. As an added bonus, since fewer Europeans own cars, they see fewer transportation-related deaths per 100,000 than we do in the U.S.

Yesterday, I spoke with the Senior Vice President of Human Resources from the largest non-profit hospital in the country (next to the Veterans Administration) who told me how his organization uses walking as an engagement tool. Each Saturday, a different senior leader hosts an employee walk at a local park in the community. Not only does this weekend walk encourage relationship-building and improve senior leadership visibility, but also walking improves the overall health of the employees who participate. Win-win. 

germany 2Europeans eat fresh food.

About once a month, my family shops at a local farmer’s market here in North Carolina. In Europe, every market is a farmer’s market, featuring vendors with only fresh and local fruits and vegetables. And since most European homes have small refrigerators (like the kind used in college dorms), people shop daily. And how do they get to the market? Yeah, they walk.

Europeans take midday breaks.

In the U.S., most full-time employees work 40 hours per week. Factor in the commute and frequency of overtime, and you have l-o-o-n-g days. Do we really need to work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week? A new study from Vouchercloud.com found that the average office worker is only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes a day.

Much of Europe bucks that 8-hour workday mentality. The average work-week in France is 30 hours; in Germany, it’s 25.6 hours. Many shops and businesses in Europe close from 1 pm to 3 pm each day.

So what do they do with those two hours? I wanted to know, so I asked several people in different countries. First, I learned that many people eat their biggest meal of the day at lunchtime. Those fatty foods like cheese? Europeans consume them midday so they have all day to burn them off. Second, a lot of people take naps. That’s right. They shut their eyes and recharge their batteries. Third, they connect with friends and family. Why wait until the day is over and exhaustion sets in to spend time with those who matter most? Finally, they get a start on household chores. Instead of coming home to hours of housework, they knock it out little by little and feel less overwhelmed as a result. 

Europeans practice community. germany 1

Visiting a German Christmas market midday, my wife and I people-watched. Even if we hit MUTE on the sounds around us, we knew we were not in Kansas (or anywhere else in the United States) anymore. People stood around tall barrels talking with friends and sipping a warm, spiced wine popular around the holidays.  In America, let’s be honest, we would be sitting. Standing is too much like exercise. And the only people who would be drinking midday would be alcoholics or college kids (a.k.a., alcoholics in training), and instead of sipping, many of them would be doing warm, spiced wine shots.

What these multi-ethnic, multi-generational groups were talking about around those barrels, I haven’t a clue. But they held hands and were present with one another. 

Then it dawned on us what was missing: technology. We saw no cell phones, tablets, laptops, notebooks, etc. Instead, people looked each other in the eyes and really connected.

They don’t have to post, “I’m having a great time standing around a barrel in the middle of the day sipping warm, spiced wine with friends” because they are too busy doing it.

What role does living in community have on longevity? Some studies indicate that a person’s survival rate after a heart attack has less to do with which hospital treats the individual and more to do with how many people visit that person in the hospital during recovery. Other studies link a higher number of social connections with greater reported happiness, career achievement, and financial success.

Summary

We returned to the U.S. committed to living more like the Europeans. We go for walks, hikes, and runs. We purchase most of our food from the outside aisles at the grocery store and stay away from processed alternatives. While we haven’t yet found a way to work in a midday nap, we are doing a better job of staying present when we are together instead of leaning on the crutch of the ever-present lure of technology.

Time will tell if it will help us live longer. But so far, these habits help us feel better and make us want to live as long as we can.

What healthful European habits can you and your organization increase? [And don’t even say smoking or drinking…]

One Comment Add yours

  1. Francis J says:

    Insightful article you have here, Scott. Few days ago my friend and I were talking at work about Europeans taking midday breaks.

    The only conclusion we came up with was that there has to be some kind of benefit to it, otherwise they would stop doing it.

    Your article nailed it in the head! I’ll be sharing it with him.

    Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.