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HEALTH

What is it that makes living in Spain so healthy?

Spain was recently ranked the world’s healthiest country and it will soon claim the planet’s longest life expectancy. What exactly is the Spanish secret to success?

What is it that makes living in Spain so healthy?
A waiter serves paella on a beach in Ibiza. Photo: AFP

Good health news has come in droves over the last few months for those living in Spain.

In October, a study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicted that Spain would surpass Japan to boast the world’s longest life expectancy by 2040.

Then, the Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index for 2019, published last week, gave Spain the top prize, mentioning the highly reputed ‘mediterranean diet’ and good public healthcare.

But will a move to Spain actually lead to a healthier lifestyle? And if so, why?

We posed the question to The Local readers, and there response was overwhelming: absolutely, thanks to quality food, good weather, a healthy and relaxed lifestyle, and solid health care.

Here are some of the highlights of their responses:

Read also:


Photo: AFP

A Healthy Diet

Numerous readers raved about how much healthier the food available to them in Spain was compared to where they came from.

Stelan Lindell, a transplant from Sweden, has been able to observe the positive effects that Spanish food has had on him:

A. O’Hare in Madrid has no doubt about the reasons for his improved health: ‘One of the main reasons is the quality of food – both in the supermarket and in restaurants.’

He compares the quality of foodstuffs available favourably to that of the United Kingdom in just about every department.

‘Food in the supermarket is much fresher than back in the UK – 4 metre long fish counters are replenished daily, the fruit and vegetables always seem fresher and there is more choice – probably because a lot of it is grown in Spain and doesn't travel as far to reach the supermarket. The meat is always fresher and the butchers take pride in letting you know it comes from a farm just down the road (even in the big supermarket chains).’

He also points out that lower prices in the supermarket make it easier to eat healthy.

An Active, Sun-Soaked, Low-Stress Lifestyle

The Local readers were generally very positive about the lifestyle in Spain, thanks to several factors. Without a doubt, good weather plays a role:

‘My health and lifestyle have improved without a doubt. Just waking up in the morning to sunshine and blue skies is one factor… I spend so much more time outside,’ says Sally Veall in Catalonia.

She and others say they are more active as a result. Karen Krypner, near Barcelona, attests to this: ‘We walk much more in Spain than at home… the sun relieves aches and pains in joints too.’

Those who lived on the coast and in small towns were particularly enthusiastic about the effects of sun and sea on their well-being: June Johnson says of her husband Maurice: ‘My husband was diagnosed with asthma and had to use inhalers in the U.K., but hasn’t used them at all since coming her 16 years ago, and no sign of any asthma at all.’

Maybe it has something to do with the fine weather, but many readers, like Stephanie Thompson, also spoke highly of the Spanish people and a laid-back attitude towards living.

High Quality Healthcare

Echoing the reasons given by Bloomberg for their attribution of the number one ranking to Spain, many residents praised the Spanish health care system.

George Johnson in Murcia was unequivocal: ‘The health care is far better than in the U.K.’ – a sentiment echoed by June and Maurice Johnson.

‘The Spanish Health Service is excellent, despite increased waiting times. If something is urgent, it's dealt with quickly’, adds Sally Veall.

Maureen Anderson also credits Spanish health care, as well as a lack of pollution:

A Few Exceptions

Not everyone had such a rosy outlook on Spain, as some complained about late dinner times, a penchant for fried food, air and noise pollution, and lack of air conditioning.

When asked about the most unhealthy aspect of the Spanish lifestyle, Karen Kryper points out: ‘Alcohol is so cheap.’

Tough luck, Karen. No country is perfect.

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MONEY

Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.

READ MORE:

Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 

 

Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.

Santander

Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.

BBVA

The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.

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