Japanese Longevity: More Fish, Less Red Meat, Exercise, Mindfulness
The Japanese live longer than anyone else on the planet, reaching a ripe old age of more than 84 years on average, according to 2019 World Bank figures. By contrast, life expectancy is just shy of 73 years globally, and not quite 79 years in the United States.
It’s not uncommon to see Japanese communities bustling with active seniors well into their upper 80s and beyond. What is Japan’s secret to a long, healthy life? Many scientists have studied this question and some consensus has developed around the following:
Diet: Healthy and Balanced
The Japanese diet is lean, nutritious, and well balanced. It includes a primary staple of fish, with high intakes of healthy marine n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids; and modest amounts of red meat, resulting in low intakes of saturated fatty acids. This balance has been cited as a factor in the population’s low rates of ischemic heart disease and cancer.
Japanese dinner tables also include plenty of vegetables, seaweed, and soybeans, which also have been shown to reduce risks of cancer and heart disease. In addition, Japanese consume large amounts of green tea, which is filled with antioxidants that help improve brain function and fight various diseases.
Japan’s longevity, however, derives not just from the national cuisine, but from the way people actually eat their meals. One widespread motto in Japan is to eat only until you’re 80% full. This allows you to avoid overeating and gaining unnecessary weight. Japanese meals are served on small dishes and eaten with chopsticks, both of which slow down consumption and aid in digestion.
The combined effect is that the Japanese have a mere 4.2% obesity rate, one of the lowest in the world, according to 2018 data from the global Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. By contrast, the U.S. has a 40% obesity rate. Obesity has long been found to be a significant contributor to disease and mortality.
Exercise: Keep Moving Your Entire Life
Japanese learn the value of exercise from their earliest childhood days. Physical education, a requirement from elementary though high s`chool, and school yards and gymnasiums are filled each day with young people playing sports.
But the activity doesn’t stop after youth. Japanese towns typically offer a full range of physical education program for adults and seniors, from dance lessons to cooking classes. Gateball also is an extremely popular activity for seniors. Described as a combination of golf and croquet, the game provides exercise and socialization as it requires mental strategy and competition.
Towns and cities themselves are designed for physical activity, with easy access to the nearest shop, park, school, community center, restaurant, or other public gathering place. It’s not uncommon to find group of seniors riding their bikes alongside young students as they go about their daily activities.
Ikigai: Find Your Reason for Being
Another factor in Japan’s longevity may be a philosophy called ikigai, which means “reason for being.” The concept centers on finding your life’s purpose, meaning, and motivation. Individuals with a clear sense of purpose experience less anxiety, fatigue and other negative effects on the nervous system, research finds. Individuals ikigai thus avoid physical conditions that can diminish one’s quality of life and cut years short.
You don’t have to be Japanese to eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, and find meaning in your life. Pharmacists can offer suggestions for achieving these goals in any country. Taking these tips to heart can help lead to a sprightly life well into old age.