Viva Espana: What we can learn from the Spanish way of living

Spain is predicted to overtake traditionally long-living Japan with an average lifespan of 85.8 years. Maybe it’s time we all started taking siestas, writes Peta Bee

Tuck into a plate of paella and savour a glass of sangria, for the Spanish appear to have unlocked the key to healthy living. In the global longevity study carried out by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and published in the Lancet medical journal this month, Spain is predicted to overtake traditionally long-living Japan with an average lifespan of 85.8 years.

That means the Spaniards — renowned for their love of wine, food, and late night — would outlive us by over four years, given that the World Health Organisation estimates the life expectancy in Ireland to be 81.5.

It seems counterintuitive that a nation that lives off long lunches and late nights can enjoy such longevity, so what can we learn from their healthier habits?

Walk more

According to the Government’s national physical activity plan, 18-64-year-olds and older adults should get 150 minutes a week, with a focus on aerobic activity, muscle-strengthening, and balance, but figures released in May (2018) by the Irish Sports Monitor Report show just under one third (32.6%) of adults achieve this amount.

What the Spanish do well is walk, known as a ‘paseo’.

Whether it’s a paseo when shopping while pushing a stroller, just a stroll around the block during the evening, most people in Spain put in their daily steps with a 2014 report placing the country second on the list of those most ‘likely to walk for 10 minutes or more on at least four days of the week’ with 76% of Spaniards meeting that mark.

Since walking is known to improve physical and emotional health (in addition to reducing the size of your waistline), it’s a habit that is keeping their health in check.

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Have plenty of sex

In the Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships, conducted at University College Dublin a few years ago, most people (58%) have sex less than once a week, with 28% having sex less than once a month. Half of married people in Ireland have sex less than once a week. Renowned for being amorous, sex is an important part of the Spaniards’ approach to healthy living.

Surveys by analysts Kantar Millward Brown show they have sex an average 2.1 times a week. No surprise either that, in a survey of 15,000 women around the globe four years ago, the red-blooded Spanish male topped the list of ‘the best lovers’. Irish men didn’t fare too badly (in fifth position), but clearly there’s work to be done to climb the list.

Eat more vegetables

A recent study of 19 European countries conducted at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and published in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition, showed that almost half (45.9%) of the content of Irish shopping trolleys is ultra-processed food. When compared to others in Europe, we ranked the third (behind Britain) highest consumers of foods packed with salts, sugars, fats, and additives.

In the same research, Spanish families were shown to buy only 20% ultra-processed food, less than half the amount we eat. Instead, they stick more closely to the plant-based Mediterranean approach to eating with plenty of oily fish, nuts — rich in vitamin E, copper, magnesium and protein — and fresh vegetables, (they eat 40g per capita of tomatoes alone each year) which has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by 27% and to increase longevity by one quarter.

Take an afternoon nap

After a lengthy Spanish-style lunch, what could be better than an afternoon nap? Older-generation Spaniards stick with tradition and take a two-hour siesta, shown to be good for health.

A 2012 study in Spain showed a siesta improved cardiovascular health and sharpened both mood and memory. Try a power nap after lunch, but make it no longer than half an hour — lengthy naps of 60 minutes plus have been shown to raise the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Factor in regular coffee breaks

In accordance with the European Working Time Directive, our average working week should not exceed 48 hours for many employees. We are entitled to a 15-minute break after every four hours at work and a further 15-minute break after we have been working for six hours. Take as many of these breaks as you can and your health may benefit.

While the Spanish work some of the longest working hours in Europe — an 11-hour stretch that extends from 9am about 8pm— their days are typically punctuated with coffee breaks and a lengthy lunch break to offset the stress.

Eat your biggest meal at lunchtime

In Ireland, most of our daily calories are consumed later in the day as we tuck into a large and satisfying evening meal.

The Spanish, on the other hand, do things the other way round with larger lunch followed by tapas (small, light plates of food) consumed much later in the evening (8pm-9pm).

A study earlier this year published in the Journal of Nutrition Sciences found there are benefits to eating earlier than normal each evening, and even shifting your evening meal forward by 90 minutes — more in keeping with the Spanish approach — could pay off. The theory that it’s better to eat your main meal earlier than later, in sync with our circadian rhythms which tell our body to eat when its light.

Findings showed that those who shifted their meal times to an earlier slot lost on average more than twice as much body fat as those in a control group who stuck to their regular eating times.

Any reduction in body fat “lessens our chances of developing obesity and related diseases”, said Dr Jonathan Johnston, study author from the University of Surrey.

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