It’s no secret that the people of Japan live longer and healthier lives than the citizens of many other developed nations, and there are reasons for this that go beyond genetics. If you’ve ever wanted to change your lifestyle or shed a few pounds, moving to Japan is the perfect opportunity to focus on self improvement. Since coming here, I have lost around 6.5 kilos in three months. The best part is, I’ve accomplished this without going on a traditional diet or severely restricting my calories. I’ve simply altered my lifestyle and resumed intermittent fasting. (I’ve included a link that explains what this is if you’re interested.) However, even if you aren’t living in the Land of the Rising Sun, you can still adopt and use these ten simple tricks to your benefit.
Disclaimer: I am writing from my experiences. While I did do some research, I am not a doctor or an expert. Always consult your physician before implementing changes to your diet and exercise programs.
- Walk everywhere.
In Japan, you probably will not have access to a car. This is a good excuse to increase your daily step count. Walk to work, the grocery store, the bus stop, and even the gym. Because it’s a low impact exercise, almost anyone can grab a pair of shoes and get outside for some fresh air. You can keep track of your steps using your phone or another device. I aim to average about 10,000 steps per day. While there is no research that shows you should do this, it’s always ok to be more active. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator is another way you can burn more energy and stay in shape. There will be days you don’t achieve your goal, and that’s ok. Don’t get discouraged—keep trying! I usually get over half of my steps throughout the day on weekdays doing regular activities. During the weekend, I almost always walk more because I travel and go hiking. After dinner, I take a thirty-minute walk regardless of the number on my pedometer. I feel that light movement after a meal helps my body digest food in a way that minimizes bloating. Walking is also good for the mind! After a stressful day, a walk often helps me clear my head. I can enjoy the feeling of the sun on my skin (protected by a good SPF) and take time to focus on my breath and my mind. If I’m feeling down or overworked, taking an easy stroll boosts my overall mood and helps me fall asleep at night. This is a win-win because getting adequate sleep is crucial for mental and physical health.
2. Drink lots of water and green tea.
Hopefully, everyone knows the importance of staying hydrated. Drinking water is good for you in so many ways. Sure, a certain amount of H20 is necessary for survival, but drinking about 2 liters per day can improve your skin and help flush waste from the body. I aim to drink about 1.5-2 liters of water throughout the day. In addition, I eat foods that have a naturally high water content such as cucumbers and soup. I do not drink soda or juice except for on rare occassion. I will sometimes have coffee, but I always drink one to two servings of green tea per day. Green tea is fantastic because it contains no sugars while being packed with powerful antioxidants and nutrients. These nutrients will not miraculously cause you to shed pounds, but some studies show green tea boosts metabolism and fat burning by increasing the body’s energy output and counteracting the metabolic decline present during weight loss. The antioxidants found in green tea may also prevent cancer. Cancer-causing free radicals in the body can be very harmful, but antioxidants like those found in green tea help neutralize free radicals and prevent them from causing damage to healthy cells. One study in Japan reported that cancer onset in female patients who had consumed over 10 Japanese-size cups (120 ml/cup) of green tea per day was 7.3 years later than that of patients who had consumed less than three cups per day. Some research also shows green tea may improve insulin sensitivity and reduce blood sugar levels. This means individuals who regularly consume this beverage could have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
3. Enjoy nature to lower stress.
Japan is full of many beautiful parks, shrines, temples, and world heritage sites. Even in big cities like Tokyo, there are areas dedicated to beauty and greenery. Research shows that spending time in nature can reduce levels of cortisol in the body. You may know cortisol as the stress hormone, and while normal amounts of this hormone produce short-term benefits, high levels present over a prolonged period do damage to the body. Some adverse affects of prolonged stress include elevated blood pressure, decreased muscle tissue, lowered immunity, and increased production of abdominal fat. Learning to reduce stress is tough, but something as simple as taking a trip to the park can help your mind and body relax. Recently, I’ve taken up hiking again, and I also commute to work on foot. I’ve found this time outdoors has boosted my emotional state tremendously. Even if hiking isn’t your thing, find something you love doing and banish that extra cortisol.
4. Consider a gym membership.
Joining a gym in Japan can be a good way to improve your health, but there are some major drawbacks, so you’ll have to determine if it makes sense for your goals. Gyms aren’t as common in Japan as they are in places like the United States. This may be because the country is already active, and many people looking for exercise prefer to either jog around the park or join an intramural sport. Gym facilities are also more limited, with most locations focusing on machines and cardio equipment rather than free weights. (I have heard Gold’s Gym includes more weights for those seriously looking to build muscle.) However, depending on where you live, Japan can have brutally hot summers and freezing cold winters that make it difficult for those not used to the climate to endure walking, biking, or running outside. Joining a gym provides an easy solution to this problem. I know I definitely appreciate a climate controlled space when I want to work up a sweat. But I will warn you that gym memberships are pricier than what you’re probably used to paying. Do your research before joining and keep an eye out for new-member deals. I joined my gym during a promotion and received my first two months for free. Make sure you understand the rules before signing the contract. Some gyms do not allow tattoos, so you’ll have to cover them. But once you’re in, you’ll have access to fitness classes and opportunities to meet new people while getting in shape. But, if you’d prefer to just go for a run or join a tennis club, that works too! The important thing is to find a physical activity you can do consistently.
5. Eat more fermented foods.
A traditional Japanese diet consists of fermented foods such as miso and natto. Kimchi and tempeh are also popular choices. Fermentation is a process that breaks down sugars by bacteria and yeast. This process helps preserve food, but there are advantages to eating them as well. Fermented foods bring balance to the gut because they contain healthy bacteria that boost immunity and promote better digestion. They may even help with weight loss. If you don’t enjoy the taste of these foods, you may find it more realistic to take a probiotic supplement or eat yogurt containing live and active cultures. Everyone can benefit from fermented foods, but people with certain stomach problems may find the positive effects of these foods much more noticeable. I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and I have discovered that incorporating foods like yogurt, kimchi, and miso in my diet helps keep my digestive system running smoothly.
6. Substitute red meat with fish.
Japan is known for its fresh, delicious sushi and sashimi. Fish, served both cooked and raw, is an undeniable staple to a healthy diet. Eating it provides the body with essential Omega-3 fatty acids thought to promote cardiovascular health and reduce inflammation. While more scientific research is necessary to draw definite conclusions, people who eat more fish and seafood tend to have lower risk of developing chronic diseases. My favorite sources of these essential fatty acids are salmon and grilled mackerel. Swapping red meat for fish can be better for your overall health. This is because red meats contain saturated fats can lead to heart disease and obesity when consumed in large quantities. You don’t have to avoid these foods entirely, however. Although I eat more fish now, I still regularly consume chicken, beef, and pork in good moderation.
7. Eat Konnyaku.
Konnyaku is an ideal food for those looking to lose weight or maintain their health. It is a jelly-like food made from the konnyaku potato native to Indonesia. Shirataki is a “miracle” noodle made from Konnyaku instead of wheat. Japanese people have been eating Konnyaku for centuries. They are full of glucomanna, a dietary fiber that is extremely difficult for humans to digest. Fiber is beneficial because it keeps you full for longer and cleans out your digestive system. This hearty plant is very low in calories and may also reduce blood sugar levels. Substituting a snack of potato chips with Konnyaku is a good way to reduce your caloric intake while upping your fiber. However, take care not to exceed the amount recommended for your body to avoid some unpleasant side effects.
8. Don’t deprive yourself and eat until satiated.
It’s easy to believe we must deprive ourselves of the foods we love if we ever want to squeeze back in our old jeans. However, this isn’t the case. While it’s important to pay attention to the nutritional value of what we consume, it’s also important to allow ourselves to indulge and enjoy life. If we view certain foods as forbidden, we will desire them until we give up and binge. Afterwards, we will probably feel shame or guilt that we couldn’t just control our appetite. We may even give up eating healthy altogether to avoid future failure. This is a very toxic relationship to have with food. It is ok to eat chocolate, french fries, or anything else you might crave in moderation as long as you include lots of nutrient-dense foods such as fresh veggies, lean proteins, and healthy fats in your diet. Since I’ve stopped punishing myself for enjoying the occasional slice of cake, I feel much happier and more in tune with my personal needs. Be kind to yourself!
It’s also important to learn to listen to your body’s needs. Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. If you drink plenty of water throughout the day, it should be easier to interpret hunger vs. thirst signals. If you’ve finished your meal and still feel hungry, try waiting a few minutes to see if the sensation passes or grows stronger. If after about twenty minutes you feel comfortable, then there is no reason to eat to the point of discomfort. However, if you aren’t satiated, it is good to give your body what it needs. Many of us, myself included, have the habit of eating when we’re bored or sad. We use food as a coping mechanism for deeper problems. If you find that you have this relationship with food, it may be beneficial to speak with an expert who can help you identify and address these deeper psychological issues.
9. Take regular baths.
Since ancient times, visiting the onsen (hot springs) has been an important part of the Japanese way of life. Taking a hot bath brings comfort to the body and mind. I love visiting onsen and trying out the different baths which differ in temperature and mineral composition. My favorite hot springs are outdoors, so you can enjoy fresh air and warm water at the same time. Relaxing in a heated pool can relieve muscle pain, improve circulation, and lower stress. The people of Japan believe there are many benefits to bathing in natural hot springs. However, it is possible to treat yourself from the comforts of your own tub. When I don’t have time to visit the onsen, I take a bath at home instead. If I really want to splurge, I’ll even use a bath bomb. While the science backing the health claims of regular bathing is lacking, it won’t hurt to practice this ancient form of self care.
10. Limit alcohol consumption and choose better drinks.
Japan has a very strong drinking culture. Your coworkers will probably go out for drinks often, and social gatherings will almost always include alcohol. Nomihoudai (all you can drink) options are very common at bars and karaoke halls. If you’re in Japan, you will drink at some point unless you abstain for health or religious reasons. It is definitely possible to go out without drinking in excess. When I attend all you can drink gatherings, I usually stop after three servings of alcohol. Other times, I simply choose nonalcoholic beverages instead. I still have a good time sober because I find the less I drink the better I feel. Hangovers always kill my motivation to be productive the next day, and when your body is focused on metabolizing the alcohol in your system, other processes (like fat burning) run much slower. I’ve also noticed when I’m intoxicated I make very poor food choices. Many people also prefer the taste of high calorie mixed drinks made with sugary soda and juices. While it is ok to have these in moderation, in general drinking red wine or a vodka soda naturally flavored with lime will be better for you on a night out. If you feel pressured by your Japanese peers or coworkers to drink, simply tell them you have to drive later. Unlike other countries where your blood alcohol content can reach a certain limit before you’re considered too drunk to drive, Japan has a zero-alcohol tolerance policy. It is illegal to have a sip of alcohol and get behind the wheel of a car. Refusing a drink in Japan can be considered quite rude, but this excuse gives you an easy out if you don’t feel like explaining why you’re not drinking.
Please note that weight loss is not always an indication of good health. Extreme and rapid weight loss is unrealistic as well as dangerous. It’s more important to focus on balancing your lifestyle rather than obsessing over numbers on the scale. It’s equally important to focus on improving your mental health as well. Do activities you enjoy and make sure to get enough sleep so that your mind feels refreshed. Our bodies can’t perform their best if our brain is not in a good state. If you’re struggling with managing your mental health, consider speaking with a professional. If you are in Japan, there are many online services available such as Betterhelp.com that can connect you to a licensed professional at a reasonable price. While my advice is specific to my personal experiences in Japan, I’m confident you can use these tips to improve your lifestyle anywhere in the world. Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions in the comments! What works best for you?