Is exercise the key to Japan’s health and famed longevity?

Every October, Japan kicks back for a particularly active three-day weekend, thanks to a rather unique holiday. On national Health and Sports Day—established to commemorate the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games—communities and schools around the country hold sports festivals to promote physical and mental health.

Boasting the longest average life expectancy in the world (83.7 years) and the lowest rate of obesity (3.7%) among OECD countries, Japan is widely regarded as a healthy country. So is a love of sport the key to Japan’s famed longevity? Or is it something else—perhaps Japan’s traditionally pescatarian diet rich in fish and green tea, or its robust social infrastructure boasting universal healthcare?

No Time for the Gym

According to new data from Rakuten’s consumer research unit Rakuten Insight, exercise doesn’t appear to be the largest factor in Japan’s national health. A survey on the exercise habits of 1,000 Rakuten users between 20 and 70 years old revealed that roughly 55% of participants did not partake in any regular exercise, answering that they exercised either less than once per month or not at all.

When quizzed on their apparent aversion to exercise, around 35% responded that they were “too busy” to get in shape. With its dedicated work culture and legendary long hours, this response doesn’t seem so out of the ordinary for Japan’s exhausted salarymen and women—after all, at some point sleep becomes more beneficial than exercise.

Following closely behind “too busy,” however, were three brutally honest self-assessments: “because I don’t like to exercise,” “because I’m not interested in exercise” and “because I don’t like moving.”

The Motivated 45%

On the other end of the spectrum, regular exercisers cited “health maintenance” as their main motivation to keep moving. This answer was especially prominent among survey respondents in their 50s and 60s, suggesting that awareness of fitness grows with age. Younger respondents were less driven by health concerns, with women in their 20s and 30s leaning towards “fat loss” and men in their 20s citing “fun” as their main drivers for exercising.

Among the participants’ activity of choice, yoga proved immensely popular among women—in fact, almost exclusively so. This answer isn’t too surprising given the recent rise of yoga in Japan, with studios dedicated to the ancient practice popping up across the country. For more senior generations, walking was the most popular form of exercise, with jogging much more common among those in their 20s and 30s.

The survey also quizzed parents on what sports they would want their kids to take up, with some surprising results. Over a third of respondents wanted their children to take up swimming (a compulsory part of Japanese elementary education), despite very few committing to the pool themselves. Parents mostly wanted their sons to take up soccer or baseball, while popular options for daughters were dance, gymnastics and, interestingly enough, tennis (which has seen an uptick in interest since rising Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka captured the Women’s US Open crown last month).

How Important is the Six-Pack?

The survey revealed a marked difference in how physical attractiveness is perceived between genders. Over 90% of both men and women indicated that they wanted to build muscle around their midriff. When quizzed about the attractiveness of visible abs, the majority of both genders revealed they found six-packs on men to be flattering—but not nearly as much on women.

At the same time, the research also indicated that very few people actually engage in the kinds of exercise typically associated with fat loss, suggesting that people in Japan rely less on exercise and more on dieting to achieve their weight goals.

Exercise: A Small Part of a Larger Picture

The country’s attitude towards food, universal healthcare, and respect for the elderly undoubtedly contributes to the famed longevity of Japanese people, but exercise habits, apart from moderate activity such as walking for the elderly, appear to play a much smaller role than one might expect.

So, if your motivation to hit the gym ever starts to wane, rest easy: Going for a short walk, or simply settling down with a warm mug of green tea might not be such a bad alternative.

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