No Weights Just Walk

How Japanese People stay fit for life, without ever visiting a gym.

Words by Olive Sowadoe

You will be staggered by these figures but as of the beginning of 2019, the UK has more gyms, more members and a greater market value than ever before. There are over 7,000 gyms in the UK for the first time, total membership approaching 10 million and market value is just under £5 billion. The penetration rate remains at 14.9%, so 1 in every 7 people in the UK is a member of a gym. So it is totally understandable why the amount of advertising that surrounds us relative to fitness, becoming healthier, losing weight and becoming stronger pervades our every waking hour.  From gym membership to nutrition and supplements, exercise kit to Yoga, Pilates to diet plans it is not often that you will go through a day without being touched whether consciously or subliminally by some kind of lifestyle change advertising inducement.

Core to online initiatives

Most decent and not necessarily expensive hotels usually have free access to a gym if you are staying at said hotel, sometimes even offering workout clothes for rental. The cynical amongst us would argue that exercise increases the potential for one to eat and drink more once back in the luxury of the hotel bar and restaurant. And the ever-growing commercial aspects of promoting good health have not been missed by the internet community, as most successful bloggers, vloggers and other contributors, in general, have Fitness and Wellbeing as the core to their online initiatives. 

In contrast to that, for a country that is number one or thereabouts in the world citizen longevity and very low numbers of people suffering from diabetes you may be surprised to find that there is not much of a strong and overt exercise ethic in Japan. Going down the gym or working out, in general, is not a big thing. People rarely use their lunch break for a gym session, and those who do are probably seen as exercise freaks and a little strange.

Don't like exercising!

In a recent survey of 1000 Japanese citizens ages 20 to their 60s, about half of those questioned revealed that they barely exercised, about once a month or not at all. Most said that they just didn't have enough time or simply that they don’t like exercising that much. Most people just didn’t see working out as part of their lifestyle, it felt alien to them!

Exercise for the vast majority of Japanese people is not about becoming bigger and stronger or a form of repairing a body that has suffered as a result of the excesses of an overindulgent lifestyle. It is not about going to a gym and lifting weights, or punishing yourself on 5 or 10km runs. In Japan exercise in the form of walking is interwoven into people's being, it is part of their culture. Why drive when you can walk? Why get the train or bus when you can walk? Stop rushing, think a while, give your self more time to walk those miles and appreciate all around you.

Walking Culture

What the above results show is not that exercise isn’t important to be healthy, but that in Japan’s approach to getting about, perhaps they do not consciously view walking as exercise. According to the NHS, the average Briton walks between 3,000 and 4,000 steps a day - significantly less than the Fitbit target of 9000, however in the Japanese survey adults walk an average of 6500 steps a day, with male adults in their 20s to 50s walking nearly 8000 steps a day and women in their 20s to 50s about 7000 steps. Okinawans, in particular, are well-known for their walking culture, being especially mindful about incorporating movement in their daily lifestyle.


Nagano, a rural prefecture in Japan, was able to flip their relatively high stroke rate (low compared to the west) by incorporating over 100 walking routes, and now their citizens enjoy the highest rates of longevity in the country.

“The first thing we wanted was just to get people walking. Everyone can do that. You walk, you talk, you get exercise and that helps build up a sense of community,” Said Nagano, Matsumoto’s mayor, Akira Sugenoya.

Most Japanese citizens live in very walkable cities where public transportation is convenient, safe, and affordable, and not many households own cars. As a consequence, when most people go to work, they walk. When people go grocery shopping, they walk. When people are going out for dinner, they walk. It’s an activity adopted every day by every generation: walking is a part of daily life like breathing is.

Are some of us in the UK missing a trick?

I am not against working out, but I am against people exercising who do not enjoy it as invariably they will stop doing it after a few months. Doing something you dislike is by definition not sustainable and a gym or structured exercise regime or culture can feel overwhelming for those who aren’t used to it, and too much can perpetuate cycles of shame and guilt. It can make us believe that reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is only available to the dedicated ones who consistently lift weights and are making enough time for daily runs.

Instead what this shows is that, like eating healthfully doesn’t need to be eating green leafy salads alone, healthful exercise doesn’t need to be only working out — the lifestyle fitness you need may just be in a bit more walking.

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