Travel for Wellness: a Scandinavian way of life

Travel for Wellness Norway

By Peter McEwan

Cover image: Much Better Adventures

Much Better Adventures is a travel company born out of a love for the natural environment. Each year we organise weekend mini-adventures for time-poor, experience-hungry professionals, all of whom come to us because they want something different. They want to spend their leisure time consciously, enjoying experiences and adventures in unique, remote locations with handpicked independent, local guides.

But adventure travel for wellness isn’t a new concept; as the rest of the world has done so many times before, we look to Scandinavia where the Nordic philosophies teaches us a thing or two about the value of spending time outside. I’ve often wondered why our Scandinavian tour operators have a soft, soothing tone to their voice when I talk to them on the phone. I’ve often asked myself, ‘how are these guys so damn relaxed all the time?’

Norway fjord

More and more people are choosing to get away from it all

‘Friluftsliv’ directly translates to ‘fresh air living’ and is pronounced ‘freelooftsleez’. This idea is nothing new to Scandinavians. But what actually is it? The concept lies somewhere between being a national pastime and a state religion. In Norway, public holidays are respected whole-heartedly and skiing on these public days is encouraged, to say the least. Try contacting a Norwegian on a public holiday. I dare you. Norwegian law is set up to allow public access to nature to any citizen, and is colloquially known as the ‘Allemansratten’ or ‘all man’s right’. Can Norway’s healthy relationship with nature be a reason it’s consistently in the top ten happiest countries on earth?

Spending a lot of time exercising in natural environments seems to have a wide range of proven health benefits, for the body and mind. We probably all intuitively know this. Compare your mood when you return from a commute home in the crowded sweatbox of a tube, to when you’ve just returned from a bluebird powder day in the mountains. Incomparable, right? But now there’s scientific evidence to back it up.

Japan is the only country in the world to have a specific word for ‘death from overwork,’ (it’s called Karoshi, by the way). The problem has become endemic to the extent that Japanese scientist Yoshifumi Miyazaki has decided to study how to counteract it. He has been studying natural therapy for a total of 33 years, and has found some surprising data on subjects walking in the woods. He tested participants for levels of cortisol in their saliva after walking in the forest as opposed to the city. Cortisol is the stress hormone. It’s makes you go grey. It gives you road rage. Miyazaki found that levels of cortisol were down by 12.7% in those subjects after a walk in the woods. It looks like a happier, less stressed mind is literally a walk in the park.

Norway, Much Better Adventures

Photo: Much Better Adventures

Is it that surprising? During the five million years homo-sapiens have been on the planet, we’ve spent 99.9% of our time in forests and 0.1% in artificial places, like over-air-conditioned offices. No wonder our bodies find it stressful. When speaking to one of our partners in Norway, Johannes Apon, he told us that “Friluftsliv is not about going out to enjoy nature. It is a return home.” And in a biological sense, this is true.

Another part of getting out into the wilderness and exercising is the added benefit of being out of phone signal. A lot of people may see this as a curse, but it’s actually a remarkable blessing. There are precious few places left where we can be undisturbed by the bossy black mirror in our pockets. Sometimes all it takes is a weekend without the constant beeps, tweets, likes and comments for us to unwind and enjoy the moment. Try it one weekend. Turn off your phone and leave it at home. You might like it.

The whole image of adventure travel is going through a much-needed makeover. The animal-loving vegan yogi has replaced the baggy-trousered adolescent liftie. Gone are the days of ending a day’s skiing dancing on the table of a generic mountain bar whilst listening to men with dreadlocks playing saxophones. You’re more likely to catch the skiers of today ending their day with a spot of yoga before polishing of an acai bowl.

UNESCO Geopark Chablais, Morzine

Did you know Morzine is bang in the middle of UNESCO Geopark Chablais? Photo: JB Bieuville

Activities like meditation and yoga are traditionally aimed to reduce mind wandering, by placing a point of focus on one thing. The result is to help that active little problem-solving brain of yours to slow down. Instead of wondering who’s liked your photo, if you’ll fall behind on rent or even what to have for dinner, you’ll find a sense of balance by thinking of, well, nothing. With more people concerned about mental health and wellbeing and less about poisoning themselves for leisure, the growth of wellness focused travel is an undeniable trend. Don’t miss this bandwagon, because it’s here to stay.

Adventure and wellness travel is great for the body and mind. It’s great for Instagram lovers and hipster buddhas in the making, but the value of this form of travel reaches further. Our Scandinavian partners tell us often that when they have hikers return from an expedition hiking the UNESCO world heritage site, Naeroyfjord, they return with a renewed respect for conservation. In such a place as the fjords, leaving a chocolate bar wrapper on the floor is unthinkable. Criminal, even. But the rate at which we all consume plastic, petrol and meat products continues to remain the same. Fresh-air living is all about leaving a place exactly how you found it. The state of the world currently is certainly not how we found it, and if we aren’t careful, we’ll soon have to leave it. If experiencing natural beauty can help to shape our thinking on how to protect it, then that can only be a good thing.

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