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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 December 2005, 14:10 GMT
Fit Finns' healthy inspiration

Hywel Griffith
BBC Wales health correspondent

Tanja Kuosmanen
Tanja Kuosmanen says Finnish families grew to accept new diets
Finland could hold the key to helping Wales become a fitter and healthier nation.

In the 1970s Finland had the world's highest number of deaths from heart disease, but in the past 30 years, it has radically cut the mortality rate from coronary heart disease amongst men by 75%.

Now Welsh politicians and professors are looking to Finland for inspiration in tackling high levels of chronic disease.

One third of adults in Wales have a chronic condition such as heart problems, diabetes or osteoporosis. These diseases cannot be cured, so the emphasis has to be on prevention.

We had a really serious problem, with young men dying of heart attacks
Pekka Kuosmanen, Finnish health official

In Finland this was done by changing the national diet. Starting with a project in the region of North Karelia 30 years ago, the community was encouraged to cut down on butter and salt in meals, and to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables.

According to Pekka Kuosmanen, director of health and social welfare in the city of Joensuu, there was a desperate need for change.

Teacher Glyn Banks
Glyn Banks says pupils can change, as long as they are not preached at
"We had a really serious problem, with young men dying of heart attacks," says Dr Kuosmanen.

"We had to do something - we all wanted to be involved. We introduced a system of health centres during that time and we gave more attention to primary health care.

Dedicated professionals

"We were lucky to have a good project to help us, dedicated professionals, good community approach."

Part of that community approach was to involve the Martta Association - the Finnish equivalent of the Women's Institute - which organised a series of cookery demonstrations and seminars to give families practical advice on how to change their meals.

According to Tanja Kuosmanen of the Martta Association, change wasn't easy.

From Helsinki you could bike all the way to Lapland and almost not meet another vehicle
Teacher Glyn Banks

"At first it was quite difficult, but slowly they got used to new ideas and new meals," she said.

"The mothers have had lots of courses and lectures, and we have taught people to use these new kinds of food and new kinds of fat. The situation is now quite good."

Nordic walkers
Nordic walking is easy, life-enhancing and popular with Finns
Now the typical North Karelian diet of red meat and salted cucumber served with beer has given way to healthier meals using fish, salads and low fat milk.

Nordic walking

The other important change which helped dramatically reduced cardiovascular disease rates was encouraging more exercise. The Finns have even invented a new form of exercise - Nordic walking - which involves using a set of poles to help each stride.

Instructor Kirsi Heinonen said: "Your upper body is working too, and that's the reason why this is more effective than normal walking.

"Ordinary people can use this, and it's very popular. Old people use this kind of exercise very much."

These simple changes have had incredible results - but would they work in Wales? According to Glyn Banks, a Welshman living in Finland for the last 25 years, it would involve massive upheaval.

"From Helsinki you could bike all the way to Lapland and almost not meet another vehicle - there are bicycle tracks everywhere and running tracks everywhere. You couldn't have that in parts of rural Wales."

In his work as a teacher, he's noticed that the pupils help themselves to vegetables and salad knowing it is important to their health.

"They do like it actually - they are aware, they're not preached to too much.

"School food is a good starting point, there's a model there of a balanced diet - with the greens, meat, fish or soup. It's consistently good and healthy."

While similar initiatives are only starting to gain momentum now, Finnish changes have been achieved over three decades.

"Overall people are very much aware," said Mr Banks.

"They have to be healthy. They have healthier food, they have the open air - they're country people."

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