Health Lessons from Okinawa

This post is the last in a series of two.

Okinawa is Japan’s most southern state and consists of about 160 small islands that stretch for more than 1,000 kilometers. Though it is one of the poorest regions of Japan, Okinawa has the highest percentage of people in the world who live to 100 and beyond.

How the elderly live

Okinawans age gracefully. Not only do they live long lives, they also live incredibly active and healthy lives. In villages, they walk long distances and do errands on foot. They grow their own vegetables and harvest their own meals. Very few use walking canes and they rarely need eyeglasses or hearing aids. Nursing homes are more like long-term sports camps.

There is a strong sense of community in the villages; loneliness and depression are rare and the word “retirement” doesn’t exist. Those who are 70 years old or more practice Tai Chi and Karate.

It is not uncommon for a 90-year-old Okinawan to work the fields or participate in boxing or bullfighting events. The rates of heart disease, stroke, cancer, osteoporosis and dementia are the lowest in the world. If you talk to an Okinawan, he or she will say that they would like to stick around until they are at least 120 years old!

Traditional diet

Okinawans follow the traditional dietary practices of hara hachi bu. A typical diet consists of fish, lean meat, seaweed, soy/tofu, green tea, fresh fruit and vegetables. The sweet potato is the main staple, which may contribute to their good eyesight and health. One sweet potato gives four times the daily minimum requirement of beta-carotene and is high in fibre and vitamins C and E.

How can people in the poorest villages in Japan have such world-beating longevity?

Lifetime habits of relying on less to survive encouraged the Okinawans to remain physically active. This active lifestyle has made them healthier, stronger and more resilient than most people in mainland Japan and in other countries who obtain more with less effort.

As was the case with our hunter-gatherer ancestors, an active lifestyle contributes to overall musculoskeletal strength and resilience. Studies on skeletal remains, as far back as 5300 BC to AD 850, have been compared to today’s most fit long-distance runners. Our ancestors score far higher on the fitness, strength and endurance scales. Today, we do much less than our ancestors and this decline in activity has led to osteoporosis, decrease in fitness, obesity and other age-related diseases.

The sad news about the younger generation

The younger Okinawans are enthralled by Western lifestyle. In the cities, stress levels are rising and the traditions that sustain longevity are being forgotten. Smoking and eating processed foods are shortening lives. Obesity and lung cancer are rising. As life expectancy slides, the older generation in villages continues to age slowly and gracefully though the world around them is dramatically being transformed.

Health tips from Okinawa

1. Eat unprocessed foods – lean meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds and some high fibre whole grains and starches are also fine.

2. Practice hara hachi bu.

3. Keep active and reduce your sitting time. Include weight training, stretching, long distance walking or cross-country running.

Photo courtesy of: Thomas Alan Smilie
Julie Zimmer

Julie has extensive experience in nursing practice and education in a wide range of fields from intensive/coronary care, to medical-surgical to community and public health. Julie has Bachelor Degrees in Psychology and Nursing, and a Master’s Degree in Community Health Nursing Education. She has taught in faculties of nursing and in various communities in Toronto, Canada and in Geneva, Switzerland, and is a consultant to the International Council of Nurses (ICN). Julie also has years of experience teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in addition to coordinating an English department in a Swiss private school.

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