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The secret of longevity: Health balance the Japanese way

In Japan, the secret to living a longer, happier and more fulfilled life can be summed up in one word: Ikigai. In Japanese, iki means “to live” and gai means “reason” — in other words, your reason to live. This ideology dates to the Heian period (A.D. 794 to 1185), but only in the past decade has it gained attention from millions around the world. The ikigai way of life is especially prominent in Okinawa, in a group of islands south of mainland Japan.

Japan has the oldest life expectancy in the world. That means people in Japan live a long time. Men live to 79 years old. Women live a little over 86 years old. What in the world causes Japanese people to live so long?

The secret of longevity: Health balance the Japanese way

In Japan, the secret to living a longer, happier and more fulfilled life can be summed up in one word: Ikigai. In Japanese, iki means “to live” and gai means “reason” — in other words, your reason to live. This ideology dates to the Heian period (A.D. 794 to 1185), but only in the past decade has it gained attention from millions around the world. The ikigai way of life is especially prominent in Okinawa, in a group of islands south of mainland Japan.

Japan has the oldest life expectancy in the world. That means people in Japan live a long time. Men live to 79 years old. Women live a little over 86 years old. What in the world causes Japanese people to live so long?

After WWII, Japan had one of the lowest life expectancies in the world, which suggests it’s not genetics that keeps them alive for so long. It’s not even that Japanese people visit doctors 12+ times a year. The answer is something else, and it’s something you can do as well to increase your life expectancy.

Japan boasts one of the longest life expectancies on earth, and it also a world leader in “healthy life expectancy”—the number of years of good health people can expect on average. Since the diet is believed to play a key role in a population’s health and longevity, researchers around the world have been studying the benefits of the Japanese diet for some time now. 

But what exactly is the Japanese diet? The people of Japan do not dine primarily on sushi, tempura, or other well-known Japanese specialities. Moreover, their eating habits have changed over the years. For our research, we used national surveys to compile weekly menus representative of the Japanese diet at various points in time over the past half-century. In the following, we will take a look at the comparative health effects of these menus.

To bring these concepts of moderation into the home, and reshape our understanding of proper meal size, we first need to choose the right plate sizes. Traditional Japanese meals are modelled after the idea of ichiju-sansai, or “one soup, three sides,” where small plates are combined to compose one whole meal. A single serving of rice, miso soup, two small vegetable dishes, and a single-serving of a protein dish. In this way, smaller plates and varied plates naturally diversify the foods to eat and practice portion control.

Traditionally, the Japanese tend to have a healthy attitude to food and eating. They have a saying, “Hara Hachi Bu”, which means to eat until you are 80% full, and it’s not uncommon to teach it to children from a young age. Not only do Japanese people eat well, but they stand and walkway more than the average American. In America, most people tend to drive everywhere. Then, after they drive, they sit for long periods.

A large portion of Japanese people walk, bike, and take the train to work (or wherever they need to go). Cars are kind of a luxury, and it’s almost easier to take a train anyways (train system is awesome). This means Japanese people are standing up for longer periods of the day, whether that means they’re walking / biking to the train station, or standing up in the train because there isn’t room to sit down. 

Japan is probably one of the cleanest nations in the world. There’s almost an obsession with it in some cases. There’s no doubt that cleanliness leads to healthiness (we learned that in the great plagues back in the day). If you live in a clean house and wash your hands, you should be okay. 

In Japan, the oldest kid is supposed to take care of the parents when they get old. The parent(s) live with the kid and help out around the house (until they get too old to, I suppose). Although this is changing a bit and fewer kids are helping out with their parents, it’s still really common. Having your kid(s) around, and grandkids around have to be a pretty nice psychological boost for the old grandma or grandpa, urging them to live longer and enjoy their time with their family. Plus, since they’re helping out around the house, it means they’re moving around (walking is important, right?), doing things, and staying active. 

Old Japanese people have so much more energy compared to old people in rest part of the world. Most of it comes with eating the right foods, but you shouldn’t forget to stand up a bit too (even if that means standing up at your desk while working, or something). Japanese people don’t live long because they have better genes – it’s all lifestyle, and it’s all a choice (or, for them, a culture). You can make shifts as well, and increase your life expectancy by 5-10 good years. 

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