Beethoven, bicycles in Holland, and naked saunas. Now if anything screams “get your in-depth medical information here” . . . well let’s just say you’ve come to the wrong place.
But among other things, my life the past two weeks has involved, yes, numerous encounters with my man Beethoven, dodging bicycles in Amsterdam, and naked saunas in Finland.
I’ve had an interesting two weeks. I’ve been away from the Mother Ship (aka Hennepin County Medical Center) for a while so haven’t had a chance to write or post anything medically relevant. Instead I’m going to subject you, dear reader, to some musings from my recent travel experiences when I was fortunate to serve as the tour physician for the Minnesota Orchestra as it played incredible concerts to sold-out European audiences. I’ll try to weave a bit of medical perspective into this post but mostly get ready for my ramblings about things that make me happy – which when you think about it is a cornerstone to a healthy life.
And if you want to know what Beethoven has in common with either Dutch bicycles or with naked people in Finnish saunas, well you’ll just have to read on at your own peril.
Last weeks radio broadcast was a losing proposition
I do want to thank HCMC’s own Natalie Ikeman for filling in for me as host of Healthy Matters last week on WCCO while I was channeling Beethoven. She did a great show on weight loss and her cool program called The Great Slim Down. Listen to the podcast here or by clicking the logo below. You can also learn more about The Great Slim Down weight loss program at our Golden Valley clinic here. Thanks, Natalie!
On to my thoughts from Europe . . .
Beethoven and that soft part in the 5th symphony
One of the great joys of my life is listening to classical music and to me nothing beats the live concert experience of a great orchestra. Happily for me, I live in a community that is home to a world-class art scene – including two professional orchestras. The big one in Minneapolis is the Minnesota Orchestra, and for some time now I have attended several concerts each year at Orchestra Hall. I usually go alone, not out of necessity (yes, I do in fact have some family and friends willing to be seen in public with me), but rather because I find an evening at Orchestra Hall by myself to be a retreat of sorts.
(By the way, the other great professional orchestra in my hometown is the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It is awesome as well.)
Let me back up a bit. I’m sure it is no surprise to you that stress permeates our fast-paced lives. I know it does for me. For me, my daily work involves standing at the bedside of vulnerable patients, talking to them of sickness and medications and painful procedures, explaining scary-sounding diseases while they lie there feeling crummy with their rear-end hanging out of a hospital gown. Sometimes I’m at their side when their lives come to an end. Often I leave one emotionally-charged patient encounter and am obligated to quickly move to an entirely unrelated patient encounter just minutes later.
Doesn’t leave time to think, to reflect, to blow off steam, to breathe, to relax.
So I go to the orchestra.
Nothing recharges me more than sitting quietly, sometimes with eyes closed, as the Minnesota Orchestra launches into a Mahler symphony. Or Verdi’s Requiem. Or just about any violin concerto (I really like violin concertos – Tchaikovsky is my favorite, but they are all good – Sibelius, Bruch, Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, Mendelssohn, any of the Bach . . . ) Or that ever-so-soft part that ends the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony just before the crescendo into the electrifying 4th movement. If you are familiar only with the da-da-da-dum “fate knocking on the door” opening of Beethoven’s 5th, I suggest listening to the 3rd-4th movements for another thrill. That pianissimo section literally makes me lean forward in my seat, just waiting for the crashing entrance of the brass to start the 4th movement. You can practically feel your own heart beating.
And my hometown orchestra is so good that it never fails to wash away the cares of my stressful day when I listen.
So for me, it was a thrill to accompany the Minnesota Orchestra on its recent tour through Europe over these past two weeks. I served as the tour physician, which basically means I was on-hand for emergencies and so forth (fortunately, no emergencies happened!). I attended rehearsals and was able to sit in the audience in some amazing concert venues.
I really recommend you check out the photo blog that chronicles the European tour of the Orchestra. It features a behind-the-scenes look at a major US Orchestra on tour, including high-quality professional pictures of the musicians in casual settings. Click on the Orchestra’s Showcase site here to see it. The people in these photos are likely the most talented and dedicated musicians and staff I’m ever likely to meet. Their music is incredible and not only that, they make great travel partners!
Here are some shots I took of the tour with my low-tech camera phone:
Lahti, Finland: Sibelius Hall
Edinburgh, Scotland: Usher Hall.
Amsterdam, Netherlands: Concertgebouw
Copenhagen, Denmark: Tivoli Hall
A highlight for me was sitting in what is certainly one of the world’s finest concert halls (the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is acoustically just about perfect – the sound is so warm it just envelops you . . . ahhh). That soft rumbling transition in Beethoven’s 5th when played by a great orchestra in such a building as this one in Amsterdam where Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and even Louis Armstrong once walked – it is something akin to pure bliss.
And if you’re ever at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, I just may be the quiet guy who looks like he has no friends. Soaking it all in. And if you have some thoughts on classical music – maybe a favorite piece or a memory of a great concert? Let me know in the comments below.
So what’s the health/wellness take-away point? Maybe you, too, have something like I do that brings you joy, happiness, calmness, balance. If so, pursue it fiercely, I say. I have no doubt it is good for your well-being.
Bicycles in Amsterdam
During my trip with the Minnesota Orchestra to Europe, I spent a day meandering the streets and canals of Amsterdam. I had been there many years ago but back then I was 22 years old and I stayed in a rented bunk bed behind a bar in the central train station, sharing the smoke-filled room with 3 leather-clad Italian women. Trust me, it was not as glamorous as it sounds! This time was completely different and I was totally smitten with Amsterdam. I came home and announced to my wife that I fully wished to move there. I wonder what the rules are for American doctors to practice medicine in Holland. Hmmm . . . .
In fact, I spent a good two hours at that canal-side table in the right of this picture. I guess I’m a sucker for serene canal-side cafes. Not so sure about Dutch ground-beef sausage that is served raw and in huge chunks. Like eating a bunch of raw hamburger meat. Sushi it ain’t.
One thing really struck me about Amsterdam. Bicycles. They are everywhere. As I walked around the city, every big street I crossed required me to look for a) cars, b) trams (streetcar-like trains) and c) bicycles. Of the three types of traffic, by far the busiest was the bike lane and I felt as likely to get run over by a bike as a car or train. Dutch people ride bikes like crazy. Commuters in suits and skirts. Elderly people with baskets. Teenagers with tattoos. Kids and their moms. Grungy looking people and chic fashionistas. Pretty much a huge cross-section of Dutch society is biking from someplace to another.
Take a gander at this street in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam. A thoroughfare for bikes! No noise. No pollution. No cars.
People on bikes in Amsterdam all looked fit. Whether 16 or 36 or 76 years old. And maybe I’m entirely delusional here, but they looked rather happy. Rarely did I see people huffing and puffing in agony as if being forced to do some horrible workout like you sometimes see at the gym on all those treadmills and stationary bikes going nowhere. Rather, it all seemed so normal and natural. Seriously there were more bikes than cars. And there seemed less noise. Less car honking and more tinkling of bike bells.
It struck me then and there that being active is simply part of daily life for much of Dutch society. I don’t know how many of these bike commuters go home and run on a treadmill, but I bet not many. In any case, they probably don’t even need to. They have incorporated physical activity into their daily lives.
It also struck me that I didn’t see as many heavy people in the Netherlands as I do here in the United States. Maybe that is not entirely a result of biking hither and yon, but I bet one of the reasons that obesity rates in the Netherlands are roughly half of ours in the USA (~17% vs ~35%) is that they incorporate physical activity into their daily lives. In fact, I’m pretty sure that is a big part of the reason.
And it’s not just the Dutch. Check out Copenhagen, Denmark, a few days later. They have the bike-thing figured out as well (not to mention the charming-colors-on-the-buildings-thing):
So here is Health Tip #2 from my trip to Europe:
Physical activity should be part of your daily life. Thirty to sixty minutes a day. You don’t have to go to a gym and run on a treadmill like a gerbil in a cage. You don’t have to run 10 miles. You don’t have to become a weightlifter. You just need to walk more, take the stairs instead of the elevator, take the bus or train instead of your car, get a push mower instead of a gas lawn mower, stop watching so much TV, walk the dog more, garden more, park far away from the store in the parking lot, walk to the corner store rather than driving. Or do like the Dutch do and ride your bike more!
Naked saunas in Finland
OK, on to the naked people part of my story . . .
My tour last week with the Minnesota Orchestra started out in Helsinki, Finland. Two things I learned about Finnish people: 1) they eat a whole lot of fish, and 2) they are obsessed with saunas.
First the fish situation. Being right on the Baltic Sea (or more precisely, the Gulf of Finland), the Finns really love their salmon. And herring. So I’m at a dinner being hosted for the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra one night in the town of Lahti. The chef kindly explained what each of the dishes in the buffet were . . . but due to a bit of an accent and his rather verbose description of each of the 20 or so dishes, I wasn’t altogether sure what the food was. So I get in line and look at the massive display of food, and I casually mentioned my confusion to the nice Finnish woman in front of me. She kindly explained what each dish was by saying, “that one is fish, that one fish, that one is fish, fish, fish, fish, fish”. I guess it was all salmon and herring prepared a jillion different ways. So the Finns like their fish. I did too! Pretty healthy diet, I suppose, eh?
OK, now the sauna situation. Someone told me, and I believe him, that there are enough saunas in Finland to accommodate the entire national population at the same time. Seriously there are something like 2 Finns for every sauna in the country. Millions of saunas. And although most people either have a sauna in their home or at least a shared one in their apartment buildings, there a few of the old-time public saunas left.
So I found one in a neighborhood of Helsinki, called Kotiharjun. For more info, pictures, and so forth, here’s the TripAdvisor site for it . And let me tell you, I have never sat in a room so full of naked sweaty men in my whole life.
So here’s the deal. You strip down to nothing, go into a blazing hot sauna with 15-20 other guys (or gals as the case may be) and sweat your cares away. A few of the Finnish men slap themselves with branches of some sort (I guess it gets the blood flowing). But perhaps the thing that makes me laugh most of all is that when you are ready for a break from the heat (did I mention these Finns take their sauna HOT?) – you then wrap yourself in a towel and literally go stand on the street corner or sit on the curb. And drink beer. With the other naked men in towels, except out on the sidewalk the women join you, also wrapped in their towels.
Here is the only picture I dared to take of the outdoor beer-drinking towel-clad people scene. It just felt too weird to stand among them and take pictures. Plus, I wanted to blend in. Which wasn’t so hard since nobody had any clothes on.
A whole bunch of strangers, standing naked on a public street corner drinking beer and wrapped in a towel. I about died laughing at the whole of it.
My sauna experience did get me to thinking. First, none of the Finnish people seemed to think it weird at all to be hanging around stark naked with each other. I mean these are co-workers, groups of 20- and 30-something guys, mixed groups of boys and girls all enjoying a good sweat. Comfort with the human body is apparently well-developed in this part of Scandinavia. And I found that refreshing, if somewhat giggle-inducing, as did the guy from New Zealand who was equally out of his comfort zone as I was.
Here’s a nice piece from the BBC about the Finnish national obsession with saunas. I particularly like the guy watching a hockey game from inside a sauna.
But I also wondered about the therapeutic effects of taking a sauna. And also the health risks. After all, people in Finland consider saunas a necessity of life, not a luxury. They conduct business in there, for Pete’s sake.
So I did a bit of research. Here’s what I found:
- The Internet is full of supposed benefits from taking a “sauna bath” but relatively little is scientifically proven. Most of the sites I looked at were probably biased and not particularly authoritative. Here is one study from some Finnish researchers.
- Taking a sauna is thought to relieve stress and cause relaxation. I totally believe this!
- Taking a sauna is safe for most people, though those with heart conditions should use caution. Makes sense to me.
- Alcohol and saunas are probably not a great idea. Which I find perplexing since at my public sauna last week in Helsinki, the drinking of beer while draped in a towel on a public street corner seemed to be an integral part of the whole experience. But probably not too wise!
So here is Health Tip #3 from my European adventure: Regardless of the science, taking a sauna is clearly safe for most people, really relaxing, probably good for your skin, and possibly has some other health benefits. And as I found out in Finland, it can be very communal and a fun way to socialize with friends. As long as you get over the “everybody here is naked” part.
So those are my musings from Europe. The Minnesota Orchestra, Dutch bicyclists, and Finnish saunas. All three make me happy.
Have a thought on any of this? Leave a comment below!
Our 400th show! From the Fair!
For those of you in the Upper Midwest, come see me at the Minnesota State Fair! We broadcast HealthyMatters LIVE from the WCCO radio booth on Underwood and Carnes (right next to Sweet Martha’s cookies so there’s that) at 7:30 on Sunday morning. Last week we had a great crowd, so come on out next Sunday, September 4. I’d love to meet ya!
Not only that, next Sunday’s show will be the 400th show of HealthyMatters. Holy cow.
Here I am at the Fair last week – on the air and with Bernie the Rescue Dog, our loyal mascot at HCMC. How cool is it that my hospital has a 7-foot St. Bernard on our team? (Believe me, kids love Bernie!)
See you at the Fair!