Austria has a long history of offering therapeutic breaks to worn out individuals. In the past (and, indeed, still today!) Austria was famed for the quantity and quality of its health resort towns – many of which offered thermal spas for afflicted guests. The ladies and gentlemen of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries took to the Austrian waters to cure all kinds of ills, from arthritis to mental health problems like depression, and even (if the sufferer were rich enough) alcoholism. These spas provided a combination of rehabilitation, relaxation, and socialisation which saw the Austrian spa quickly become something of a Europe-wide cultural phenomenon. It may seem a peculiar concept to us now – but it’s worth noting that modern doctors are increasingly emphasising the importance of self-care for patients and those who care for them – something which Austrian spa towns provided in abundance.
For the Victorians, the concept of a ‘change of air’ was a healthcare staple. Those who were dubious about the curative properties of Austrian water nonetheless headed for Vienna and beyond, drawn by the promise of clean, fresh, curative mountain air. In an era which saw towns and cities swiftly and increasingly becoming choked with the soot and ash of new factories and railways, lung complaints became more and more common. For these, Victorian doctors prescribed (among other things) fresh air cures. Many could not afford to take their ‘cure’ much further away than the seaside – but wealthier patients frequently packed their bags and headed to Austria. Luxury sanatoriums swiftly began to pop up in mountain towns all over Austria. High altitudes were thought to be particularly curative, and Austria is, of course, blessed with plenty of convivial mountain locations which could provide the coughing Victorian with all of the requisite fresh air without skimping on the comforts to which they were accustomed.
Nowadays, we know a bit more about how the human body and mind work. While you can still take a spa retreat in Austria, doctors tend not to prescribe them any more. Nonetheless, there are definite health benefits to be had from spending some time looking after yourself – and a trip to the mountains of Austria turns out to have health benefits far beyond what the Victorians understood!
For a start, there’s the exercise factor. We all know that exercise is good for us – it tones up our muscles, burns fat, pumps blood to our brains, and generally gets our bodies working as they should. Taking a mountain break does not necessarily have to involve exercise – but most people who want to get the best out of their time tend to engage in rather more exercise than they otherwise would have. Hiking, climbing, skiing – it all adds up, and ensures that you come home that little bit healthier!
Then there’s the mental health aspect. Spending time in beautiful natural surroundings like those found in the Austrian Alps can give a huge mood boost. Coupled with the stress-busting effects of taking time to yourself, doing something you love, and you’re on to a mental-health winner!
And, finally – fresh air. Modern doctors raise eyebrows at the Victorian obsession with fresh air as a cure-all, but science is increasingly revealing that the Victorians weren’t quite as deluded as it may seem. The air in many modern cities is infused with heavy metals and other environmental pollutants which can have a cumulatively detrimental effect on human health. Many people experience respiratory symptoms as a result of this. Modern research shows that heading to a place where the air is less polluted really can lead to a reduction in these symptoms, and give badly affected lungs a chance to heal (although the symptoms are, sadly, likely to start up again when the sufferer re-enters the original polluted environment). What’s more, scientists have found that breathing in fresh air can actively reduce stress and improve mood – something they attribute to a combination of increased oxygen and smells. Yes, smells. Our noses are closely connected to our emotions, and ‘positive’ smells such as those carried by fresh air shoot directly into the emotional centers of our brains. This reduces stress, improves mood, and generally sets you up for a good day!
Guest article from Gemma Hall