Japan is a land of great innovation but also steeped in tradition.
Here are some of the aspects the traditional Japanese lifestyle, including diet, exercise and in general a way of life that should be the model of healthy living for the rest of the world.
Small portions are the rule in traditional Japanese dining. Meals are served in small plates and bowls with a strong emphasis on presentation. But, perhaps the hallmark of Japanese portion control is their mantra known as Hara Hachi Bu (Eat until 80% full). This has become lost on a western culture that eats until they are about 124% full!
In terms of the food itself, traditional Japanese food is rich in vegetables, whole grains and marine life. For the average Okinawan, vegetables, grains, and fruits make up 72% of the diet by weight. Soy and seaweed provide another 14%. Meat, poultry, and eggs account for just 3% of the diet, and fish about 11%. (Source)
In terms of their fish consumption, Japanese people living in Japan were shown to have 45-80% higher levels of omega-3's in their blood than both white Americans and Japanese Americans. This correlated to a significant decrease in cardiac risk factors.
The Japanese version of the food pyramid is a unique concept. The shokuseikatsu ??? (food lifestyle) has all the makings of traditional and healthy constituents of a diet, but instead of a pyramid, it's a spinning top with the exerciser on top that makes it spin. How brilliant is that?
In Japan, walking as a lifestyle. Japanese people just plain move more. Driving isn't as common as it is in North America, so they take more steps on a day-to-day basis.
HIIT Innovators -- another form of exercise that has become one of the most popular concepts in conditioning was the result of the research of Izumi Tabata, who popularized the Tabata method. Think very intense bursts of work followed by a rest period (usually a 2:1 work/rest ratio).
Good Squatting -- in observing the Japanese volunteers at my children's play center, I'm amazed they stay in a deep squat position for what seems to be an eternity, while they interact with the children. Whether this is due to squat toilets, an absence of chairs or a mandate in PE class, the Japanese tend to be naturally adept squatters. This bodes well for better hip mobility later in life, I suspect.
Escaping traditional = health deterioration
Sadly as countries adopt Westernized culture, health begins to suffer and Japan is no exception. The land of the rising sun has become the land of rising obesity.
To paraphrase my friend and colleague Ryan Zielonka, who is both a fat loss expert and Asian studies major, an entire konbini (convenience store) culture (????) is rampant -- unparalleled by what we see in North America. Japan is the home of what's known as tabehoudai (????), which translates to all-you-possibly-can eat, and cakes/sweets are as accessible as they are here.
While it may not be realistic to live exactly like the traditional Okinawans, we can take a page out of their culture in terms of our outlook on eating, exercise and lifestyle. It starts with changing the way we see food, which can permeate into what we are eating, how we are cooking it, and how much of it we are eating.
It also wouldn't hurt us to hoof it more often, putting more daily activity into our lifestyles. Then, when you feel ready and have established some good hip mobility, mix in some Tabatas and deep squats into your routine!