How the Japanese Lead the World in Longevity Without Going to the Gym

Hint: It isn't just that antioxidant-rich diet

japanese people walking
Yes, many Japanese people exercise, they just don't think about it as exercising.
Andy Miller/Unsplash

Japan has the most centenarians per capita in the world. A 2016 study conducted by the World Economic Forum found that the nation had 61,000 citizens aged 100 or older, comprising 0.048% of the population. This phenomenon is often connected with the Japanese diet, which emphasizes fish, plant-based foods, minimal sugar intake and portion control. Traditional Japanese cuisine, known as “washoku,” prioritizes small plates and local ingredients.

That diet is a big reason the Japanese have some of the smallest waistlines in the world. Only 4.3% of the populace is obese, which is an absurd figure for a wealthy developed nation. For instance, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom are all above 27%. The United States is at 36.2%.

But another reason, which was recently outlined in an essay by Japanese writer Kaki Okumura, is a national devotion to walking. Akin to biking in Northern Europe, the Japanese walk everywhere. They walk to work, to the grocery store, to dinner. If they need to get somewhere far away, they access a reliable (and lightning quick) public transportation system. Car ownership stands at just 69% nationwide. Contrast that with 93% in the United States.

Japanese officials have encouraged this way of life, creating miles of walking routes for its citizenry in specific prefectures. The average Japanese person now takes 6,500 steps a day. Fascinatingly, though, in a recent survey by Rakuten Insight, over half of Japanese responders (aged 20 to 60s) claimed that they “barely exercised.”

The key in all this, Okumura argues, is that the Japanese don’t view walking as exercise. They accrue thousands of steps each day — which we know is dynamite for both physical and mental health — without thinking about it. For many of them, then, longevity comes without the expense of a gym membership, or home gym equipment, or fancy activewear.

And it comes without the expectations all those things bring. All the guilt, all the shame. Fitness culture in the States is highly motivating for certain people, but for others it can be intimidating, isolating, cultish. If you often find yourself in the latter camp, consider adopting Japanese methods. At a time when we could all see a bit more of the outside world, and finding time for fitness seems nigh impossible, just keep it simple. Go for a walk.

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