On (not) exercising like a Japanese woman

Never liked gyms. Never have, never will. I’ve also never enjoyed exercising and thus stand out starkly from the rest of my extremely athletic, active, crazy family.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, and thinking more seriously about how I’d rather exercise like a Japanese woman than an American woman. It appeals to the gym-phobe in me.

My love of Japan spurs a lot of my thinking, subtle or no, and I’d like to think that I could follow the Japanese woman’s pattern for healthy living. Japanese women are famous for being the population segment that has the longest lifespan in the world, and Japan boasts the lowest obesity rate in the developed world (3%, versus a whopping 32% for the United States). Japanese women, like French women, don’t get fat and don’t (really) go to gyms.

I went running a few times when I lived in Tokyo, and my host parents thought this was extremely strange. “Abby-san, why would you do that?” Keiko, my host mother, asked me, when I said I was going to go for a run. “To stay healthy,” I told her. She just furrowed her eyebrows in suspicion. Simply, people in Japan aren’t obsessed with exercising and going to gyms because they don’t have to be; rather, their overall lifestyles provide them with better health benefits than the purported health benefits of American exercise culture. Let’s consider the lifespans and overall obesity rates of Americans versus the Japanese. Clearly, we’re doing something wrong.

My perception is that many Americans get trapped in this vicious cycle: going to the gym, fueled by guilt, and then after a vigorous cardio session, they eat a ton because they feel like they “deserve it” — and thus effectively undoing all of the work they just did. And then the guilt/gym cycle starts all over again, progressing nowhere and leading to a very unhealthy mind/body relationship. At least, that’s how I, the anti-gym lady, perceive it.

Shibuya, June 2008. (c) me.

On the emotional level, GUILT is the main thing that plagues me about gyms and the American fitness mindset. We children of Puritans like to nurture our guilt about everything, especially our bodies and the food we eat. I’m sick of hearing women (and it is mostly women) obsess about calories, about how they haven’t been to the gym enough, about how they don’t have time to talk or share a glass of wine because they have to go running or else. I want to avoid all of that.

I’m not a fan of vicious cycles, guilt, or neon sports bras. But I am a fan of the Japanese model of healthy living, which effectively bypasses all of this.

So this is what I’ve been thinking about lately, these general aspects of the active Japanese lifestyle that I’m trying to be mindful of:

*Caveat: None of this is NEWS to any of you. I know all of you know all of this already, but it’s more for my benefit, to hash out in words.

  • Walk everywhere. Or bike. This is obviously more difficult in the United States, particularly if you don’t live in a public transit–friendly metropolis, but it is often more possible than I think it is. We are lucky to live near downtown, both of our offices, AND have two psycho dogs who want walks all the time. When we bought our house, living in a walkable area was important for us, and I’m daily thankful we resisted the temptation of a bigger, cheaper house in the country for a smaller, more expensive one in the city.
  • Don’t sit down for too long. Thanks to my standing desk contraption, which still gets a lot of weird looks and comments at my office, I’m standing for 8 hours a day instead of sitting for 8 hours a day. Everyone has already read all of those terrifying articles about how sitting is killing us, etc., etc., I don’t have to rehash that here.
  • Eat a mostly vegetarian (or pescetarian) diet. There are a ton of reasons why we should all be eating far more plants and far fewer animals, be it your health (fascinated by this Atlantic article about vegetarians’ low blood pressure), the environment, or animal ethics. Guion and I have been trying to be vegetarian (or sparingly pescetarian) five or six days of the week; we leave the other days as “flex” days, in case we were invited to someone’s home for dinner or going out on a date. The Japanese eat meat in small portions, mainly because it is expensive there, and there is no natural land to farm it themselves, so the vast majority of meat has to be imported. So there’s a ton of fish, rice, and dark greens in the Japanese diet, with sparing amounts of animal flesh.
  • Small, appropriate portions. Dining in Japan really throws US portion sizes into terrifying relief. The most striking comparison I recall is the size of a meal at a Japanese McDonald’s versus a US McDonald’s. Upon receiving his Big Mac in Harajuku, one of my fellow American students exclaimed, “What is this, a kid’s meal?” because it was so small. Okinawans, who live longer than anyone else, also follow this rather mystical Confucian principle of hara hachi bu, which essentially means, “eat until you are 80% full.” How these sage Okinawans have such accurate internal hunger gauges, I don’t know, but the general principle is still present. Don’t stuff yourself. I also have a bad habit of putting more on my plate than I tend to eat; my eyes are always bigger than my stomach, and so I often end up wasting a lot of food.
Kamakura. (c) me.
  • Lay off the sugar. Sugar is extremely sparing in the Japanese diet, which is likely another reason why they aren’t fat and live a lot longer than us. One of the sweetest things I tasted in Japan was anko (red bean paste), which is used in traditional desserts. The sweetness is so subtle that most Americans would not even classify it as sweet. But it’s the perfect amount of sweetness — just a pleasant hint. I’ll always remember eating brownies with Mayumi, one of the Japanese teachers who lived with us when we were growing up. We were all cutting off palm-sized bricks of brownies to chow down on after dinner. Mayumi ate a brownie that was about the size of a large postage stamp and immediately exclaimed, “Oh, my! Too sweet! Too sweet!” And that was all the brownie she could take.
  • But indulge, on occasion, without feeling guilt. I’ve never believed that healthy living means you have to forgo all of the good stuff. And neither do the Japanese. As you can see from my university friends in Tokyo, lapping up frappuccinos at a Starbucks knockoff:
(c) me.

Along with my lifelong exposure to Japanese culture, my mother has always reinforced these principles. Make good choices, she always told us. You don’t ever have to diet. You don’t have to go to the gym every day. Just make good choices.

Simple as that. No guilt, no spandex.

物は試し. Just do it.

*As a funny postscript to all of this: Expansion of the French Women Don’t Series.

4 thoughts on “On (not) exercising like a Japanese woman

  1. I enjoyed reading this! Especially that last bit of “Simple as that. No guilt, no spandex.”

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