Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Russian Vision of a Healthy Lifestyle

While the Western world is counting calories in everything including toothpaste, Russian women say half-jokingly: what could I eat to lose weight? The Russian vision of a healthy lifestyle and the idea of healthy living in, say, North America have very little in common. People from the United States wonder how Russians can be so careless with their health, and Russians are shocked by how marketing-based and advertising-addicted the American lifestyle is.

Healthy food

For the average American, healthy food is what is sold under the label “low fat”, “diet”, “salt-free” and so on. If you want to eat healthy food, just buy diet cola instead of normal cola. In Russia, food is still all about cooking fresh products at home. Many Russians (well, at least, those who are not incarcerated in the office cubicles) prefer hot dishes for lunch. Lunch always means a hot, freshly cooked meal, like soup, and/or a piece of meat with vegetables. Many Russian women still feel uneasy about microwaved food, since freshly cooked food is considered much more healthy.

Photo by Artem Goncharyuk

In the USA, fruits and vegetables are available in the supermarkets all year round. In Russia you too can buy fruit and vegetables in supermarkets in any season, however, people prefer to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables in farm markets or to plant them themselves in their dachas. For Russians, healthy food is home-grown. The less intermediaries are between potato and me the better: the best potato is what I planted myself, bought from other farmers is still ok, bought in the supermarket is much worse and the frozen potato chips are almost unacceptable. Potato chips with the label “fat free” doesn't make them any better either.


Like many Americans, Russians love different kinds of diet. However, I don't know anybody who would really keep the diet for longer than a week. The Russian social life is such that any holiday is arranged with lavish meals (and Russia has a lot of holidays throughout the year). Traditionally, Russians drink a lot. I don't mean vodka, I mean just any alcohol. And alcohol doesn't fit with the idea of healthy lifestyle. When I was devoted to fitness and visited the gym 5 times a week, I often came back to my office after my workouts or went to my friends and joined in their parties. As you may guess, what I drank was not water or juice. And what I ate was not a spinach.


In the North America, I saw ladies and nearly apoplectic gents jogging along highways during hot summer afternoons. Many people visit gyms or play team games like football. Though gyms and sport games are fine, I don't think that jogging along highways and inhaling car exhaust fumes is a healthy habit. In Russia, jogging is not popular. There are gyms in almost every Russian city, and these gyms are quite popular among people with a high income, since membership cards are relatively expensive. Winters in Russia are harsh, but winter outdoor activities like skiing and skating are very popular too.

Though Russians are on average less into sports than Americans, Russians move more in routine activities for the very simple reason that there are significantly less cars in Russia. In Russia, it is absolutely normal to take 20-25 minute walk from the bus station to your home. Everyday walks work as well as one hour workout at the gym on Sunday. Besides, many Russians have dachas (summer houses) and spend all their spare time planting vegetables and fruit.In my experience, working at a dacha is comparable with a good advanced workout. Actually, workouts are easier, since they only last only an hour or so, whereas working at a dacha can take any length of time at all. You work until the task is done and there are always new tasks waiting for you. I saw quite aged ladies on Russian suburban trains carrying heavy 20 litre buckets in both hands and a backpack full of potatoes or tomatoes. I very much doubt that you could convince them to buy a gym membership.