The Lifelong Exercise That Keeps Japanese Moving

What do you think is the percentage of Japanese who go to a fitness club or gyms? You'll likely be wrong...

WHAT DOES THE WORD EXERCISE mean to you? Is it something for athletes? Does it need to make you sweaty? Is it, by definition, not fun? Today, I want to tell you what Japan means, at least from a practical perspective.

What do you think is the percentage of Japanese who go to a fitness club or gyms? Did you guess 50 percent? Perhaps 25 percent? Today, only about three percent of Japanese individuals will be fitness club members. And it is not simply because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2012 and 2016, the rate was approximately three percent.

The current life expectancy for Japan in 2021 is 84.8 years, a 0.14 percent increase from 2020. This life length is nearly six years longer than those in the United States. Canada? 82.7 years The United Kingdom clocks in at 81.5 years.

You are probably wondering how the Japanese pull off this longevity feat. They achieve long lives, at least in part, through fewer deaths from ischemic heart disease and cancer (especially breast and prostate cancer).

Moreover, Japanese people have a low rate of obesity and consume a balanced diet. The obesity rate is about five percent for men and less than four percent for women, and this compares to an obesity prevalence of over 42 percent in the United States.

Obesity raises the risk of several types of cancer and the chances of suffering from heart disease.

Photo by David Todd McCarty on Unsplash

The Japanese diet has some commonalities with a Mediterranean diet. For me, occasional soy dishes such as miso soup have appeal. I prefer to eat less meat, sugar, and starch (although I admittedly could do better in the realm of fish). Do you enjoy the health benefits of any elements of a Japanese diet?

Let’s get back to our main topic, exercise. I walk, but I also thrive on intense workouts. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) on occasion is a blast. And resistance training? Give me those dumbells, or let me drop and get in a quick three sets of fifteen pushups. I have a 3rd level black belt in Shito-Ryu traditional Japanese karate.

But can I achieve my longevity and health aims by doing less? I recognize that I live in a culture where ads from gyms, athletic clothing companies, running shoe vendors, and more bombard us.

Do Japanese exercise? When researchers asked young people in their 20s about regular exercise, they got these responses:

  • walking (42 percent)
  • stretching (24 percent)
  • jogging (22 percent)

Approximately half of those queried offered that they barely exercised, about once a month or not at all.

Hmm. The Japanese live longer and healthier lives without a lot of formal exercise. A specific exercise routine known as rajio taiso (radio calisthenics) is an exciting practice that tens of millions perform. Children do it, as do some company employees (as a group). Can you use taiso to live a longer life?

I subscribe to Japanese television and am familiar with rajio taiso. Here are the three routines involved: First, there is dai-ichi. Ask your Japanese friend or colleague about it, and you will see nods of familiarity. Very young individuals learn it.

The second approach is called dai-ni, and the third is dai-san. These progressively increase physical activity. Let’s get more granular: Dai-ichi is composed of thirteen movements. You begin with the gentle stretching of your arms overhead.

Put your arms across your chest for the second movement and then swing down like pendulums until your extremities finish outstretched on either side. This movement is all done as you gently bob your knees. Here are a series of diagrams for you (don’t worry about the foreign language; the diagrams are instructive, and there is English as well as Japanese):

【図解】ラジオ体操第一・立位の順番とコツを解説|かんぽ生命図解でラジオ体操第一・立位の順番やコツ、体の動かし方のポイントを解説。ラジオ体操は、正しい動きにより健康効果を高めることができます。

Make it to movement 11, and you will be doing some star jumps in time to the music. None of this is particularly rigorous. Still, there is a cool-down period, with the last two movements repeating steps one and two to allow for some time to cool down.

Rajio taiso takes advantage of your body weight and momentum; there is no need for equipment. Taking only three minutes, you plant your feet, shoulder-width apart. This simple approach makes rajio taiso accessible to school children, office workers, and older folks alike. You can do it at home or work, alone or in a group. A review of studies on exercise plans for older individuals discovered this:

Walking speed and the time taken to stand up out of a chair can be improved (even for the frailest amongst us) with light stretching.

Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash

Do you stretch or do calesthenics? Thank you for joining me today.

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Editors ChoiceThe Lifelong Exercise That Keeps Japanese Moving
Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.
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