The Finnish way

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on February 11, 2019 # Health, Mobility

A few weeks back, while discussing with my wife the increasing importance of sustained exercise in my life, both physically and even more so, cognitively, she handed me a book called “The Finnish Way,” with the admonition, “You’ve only scratched the surface.” “The Finnish Way” is a newly-published outsider’s account of how the Finns, as a kind of cultural imperative, go about maintaining both their physical and mental health to a ripe old age. The Finns are repeatedly rated as one of the top five healthiest countries in the world. According to the latest 2018 UN World Happiness Report, they are numero uno on that scale, too. This is no coincidence, rather it is part of a deep-seated belief system, inculcated from birth.

This way of life is encapsulated in an idea called “sisu” (pronounced “see-su”). Sisu is a simple concept, while also deep on many levels, such as how it explores brain theories like embodied cognition. In general, it stands for the spirit of tenacity, resilience, and perseverance in the face of adversity. The Finns pride themselves on never giving up or allowing themselves to become soft and lazy. In 1899, Theodore Roosevelt, never having heard the word, sisu, named this “the doctrine of the strenuous life.” “You only reach a level of freedom and fulfillment,” he said, “through effort, disciple, and dedication to the task.” As dreary as that may sound, in Roosevelt’s mind it is the path to joy.

In sisu, the body and mind work in concert to enhance the resilience of both. According to “The Finnish Way,” 96 percent of Finns “participate in outdoor recreation on average of two to three times a week.” They are always moving, whether it be walking, biking, hiking, cross-country skiing, or just out picking wild berries. They spend an inordinate amount of time in the Finnish woods doing what they call “green care,” an activity that relieves chronic stress from their hyped-up, high-blood-pressured urban life. The Japanese also have a word for this kind of therapy, which translates to “forest bathing.” Put that in your lexicon of self-help.

Becoming physically resilient, the theory goes, leads to mental resilience and vice-versa, sometimes in ways not clearly understood. Let’s take the most extreme Finnish physical pastime described in the book – “winter swimming.” You walk outside in the dead of winter, cut a hole in the thick ice of the Baltic Sea, and jump in. You swim around for about 30 seconds to one minute, then hop out. You then take a quick shower, and if available, a long, leisurely sauna. You are, so they say, reborn.

There is a ton of scientific research to prove that this is not simply a baseless Finnish ideology. This kind of bodily shock therapy is an antidote to everything from depression and anxiety to circular thinking and lethargy. “The Finnish Way” talks about the “hormonal storm” triggered by these dips, exciting “the happy hormones” like endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and Oxytocin.

Of course, “adaptive” winter swimming may not be possible for someone in a wheelchair, but 30 seconds in an ultra-cold shower might be good therapy. What is available to most chair users, despite our limitations, is movement, or what some experts call “movement as medicine.” Movement here does not mean becoming an elite athlete. It means building physical activity into every possible moment of your waking life. Bus drivers who walk up and down stairs on their break have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) now rates lack of physical activity as the fourth leading cause of morbidity. The minute you stop thinking of ways to avoid movement in your life – from Grubhub to binge-watching – you will be enhancing your health. Even among those of us fated to sit for most of the day, sitting, as they say, is the new smoking. It is both habit-forming and destructive.

Back to sisu. A daily regime of physical exertion, from strenuous to incidental, is only part of the idea. It’s also an exercise of will, developing the impulse to tackle obstacles rather than back away from them like you would develop a muscle. In sisu thinking, the mind is not separate from the body. They are simply two interconnected parts of the same organism, on a constant loop where they reinforce or undermine each other. We all know about the value of the neurotransmitter/hormone serotonin, one of the mood-enhancing, sleep-and-appetite-regulating “happy” hormones. We think of it as something generated by the brain. The truth is, about 80 percent of the serotonin in our system comes from the gut. Healthy gut, healthier mind.

Get moving.

(To be continued)

Pantzar, Katja, The Finnish Way, TarcherPerigee Books, 272 pgs, 2018.