Why Are Scandinavians So Big?

Scandinavians are famously tall. With over 45 podium finishes in Strong Man Competitions in recent decades, they also have an outsized reputation for brawniness.

But what factors contribute to making people from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway among the biggest in the world today?

Scandinavians are so big because of their genes, great wealth, and love of the outdoors. Their genetic ancestors were taller than other Europeans of their time.

Scandinavians also have access to more nutritious food and better healthcare than most people worldwide and work out more.

This article will delve into each of these explanations and illustrate them with data where possible, explaining how these unique factors combine to make the average Scandinavian bigger than people from most other nations.

Also, see How Do Scandinavians Insulate Their Homes? to learn more.

5 Reasons Scandinavians Are Bigger Than the Average Person

A population’s mean height and weight are influenced by various material factors.

These include genetic factors, which pass down from generation to generation, irrespective of the environment.

However, non-genetic or environmental factors also influence the mean size of the average individual in a population.

Such non-genetic factors include all possible influences on the health and nutrition of a group of people, especially during childbirth and early childhood. 

Moreover, genetic and non-genetic factors interact in complex ways in the short term and across a longer time frame.

Thus, they are not entirely separate. Instead, when they combine, they reinforce trends across generations.

Environmental factors have been the dominant influence on human health and populations for most of our history.

However, rapid technological changes in recent centuries mean that humans have been able to surmount many of the limits placed on them by environments, including in areas of human biology.

The reasons why Scandinavians today are bigger than other people include:  

Long-Term Genetic Factors

Most Scandinavians trace their genetic ancestry to the same group of Bronze Age people. [1]

These were the ancestors of the Norse people of the Viking Age, from whom most modern Scandinavians descend. 

Studies of Viking Age skeletons confirm that while medieval Scandinavians were not tall by contemporary standards, they were, on average, taller than their European contemporaries.

Simultaneously, intergenerational genetic studies have shown that many measurable differences that correlate to differences in size between people are highly hereditary. [2] [3]

Genes account for between 60 and 80% of the differences in heights between people. [4]

And studies of identical twins have shown that genetic factors significantly influence individuals’ Body Mass Index (BMI), although the correlation can weaken with age.

To summarize, early Scandinavian ancestors have most likely passed on genes that make their descendants taller and heavier than most others. 

Increases in Wealth in the Short Term

Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are among the world’s wealthiest countries. [5]

They haven’t always been so. This means that material conditions in these countries have changed significantly in recent decades.

At the same time, comprehensive analyses of global populations have also shown a strong correlation between the wealth of nations and the height and BMI of their people. [6] [7]

The only exceptions are outliers like some Micronesian and Polynesian islands facing obesity epidemics.

Thus, Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians today are significantly taller than they were half a century ago. [8]

The average per-decade height increase for Scandinavians between 1950 and 1990 was:

  • Female Swedes – 0.16 in (4 mm) 
  • Male Swedes – 0.35 in (9 mm)
  • Female Danes – 0.28 in (7 mm) 
  • Male Danes – 0.28 in (7 mm) 
  • Female Norwegians – 0.24 in (6 mm) 
  • Male Norwegians – 0.31 in (8 mm) 

BMI gains over the same period are likely to be just as dramatic. It is easy to understand why. As nations grow wealthier, their citizens can access better health services and nutrition.

How this influences their physical stature will be discussed in greater detail in the following sections. 

Of course, there are also biological limits to such improvements, and no population can keep getting taller indefinitely. [9]

Better Diets

As people get richer, they usually consume more nutrient-rich animal protein from meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. [10]

At the same time, the proportion of their daily caloric intake from foods like cereals, tubers, and roots goes down.

Finally, their diets become more diverse – consisting of more fruit, for instance.  

Low childhood poverty means that nutrition is adequate throughout a child’s most crucial development phase in the Scandinavian countries.

In addition, many schools offer free healthy lunch meals to their students.

Over a few generations, diverse, protein-rich diets help wealthier populations grow taller and healthier than poorer ones.

Thus, better diets play a significant role in making Scandinavians bigger than most other people. 

On the other hand, most of the world’s people live in the Global South – in countries in Asia and Africa that are much poorer than the Scandinavian countries.

Their populations remain undernourished. These traits get exacerbated from generation to generation.

Access to Health Care Services

Most Scandinavian citizens can access excellent healthcare services throughout their lifetimes. Hospital services are often publicly funded at taxpayers’ expense and are free to use. [11]

Primary care is widely available.

For all these reasons, maternal health outcomes are excellent. Healthy mothers produce healthier children.

Moreover, through their childhood, Scandinavians have access to services, ensuring low incidences of untreated early childhood disease

Scandinavians also live longer and lead more healthy lives throughout their lifetimes than people in many other parts of the world who are poorer or have limited state support for healthcare and nutrition.

All of these factors combine to make the Scandinavian population extremely healthy, even by the standards of rich countries.

Inevitably, adult Scandinavians achieve the best results their biological potential permits.

Scandinavians Are More Physically Active 

Finally, Scandinavians are reported to be among the most physically active of all Europeans. 

Perhaps, because enjoying nature is an essential part of the culture, many more Scandinavians get the amounts of exercise that doctors recommend each week. [12]

Often, they work out even in sub-zero temperatures. 

Staying active is vital to building skeletal muscle and maintaining it as populations age. It further contributes to making Scandinavians bigger on average than other people.

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Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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