Tokyo: A Health Love Story

I love Tokyo. I always have. My first trip to Tokyo was in 1975 with my wife, Debra. We landed at the old Haneda airport on a hot, sticky June afternoon during the rainy season the Japanese call tsuyu. Coming from Seattle, Washington the muggy heat hit us like a wall of warm, wet wool. Yet I loved the city.

Since that first trip in 1975, we’ve lived in Tokyo for a total of seven years and I’ve flown back on well over a hundred business trips. Each time I arrive, I can’t help but notice how healthy and slim Tokyoites look. During a visit it doesn’t take long to figure out why. Just living in the city requires a person to walk, climb stairs and dodge the 37 million other residents of the greater Tokyo area, who stream through the subway and train stations, ride the buses, and walk the streets.

I never fail to slim down when visiting Tokyo, and now I have the metrics to tell me why. On my last trip there in July I brought along my Fitbit One, a physical activity tracker that uses an accelerometer to measure steps taken and stairs climbed. In just one day of “regular” activity in Tokyo, I managed to rack up 20,000 steps and 45 flights of stairs. There was no need for a planned workout to reach these high counts that nearly doubled my daily averages. I just walked…and dodged…and walked…and climbed!

Tokyo: A Model for Healthy Aging

In Tokyo, all of that walking, climbing and dodging certainly seems to be working. According to a 2009 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, only about 3.9 percent of the Japanese population was classified as obese. By contrast, the US now tops 30 percent, almost ten times higher than Japan. A healthier diet and physical activity are key features of the Japanese, and Tokyo, lifestyle.

Perhaps there is no better marker for successful aging than the number of centenarians in a society. Tokyo in 1963 had only 153 men and women over the age of 100. In 2007, the number reached 32,300. By 2050, the estimate for Tokyo’s super aging population suggests that one million people (mostly women) will have crossed the century mark. That’s an amazing metric for sustainable health.

A Powerful Health Technology: The Bento Box

tokyo-2While New York Mayor Bloomberg makes global news for attempting (and failing) to institute a ban on 64 oz.-soft drinks, the Japanese continue to use the world’s most powerful technology for controlling portion size—the bento box. It is an ingenious device that has fixed compartments for different kinds of foods that make up a meal—vegetables, fruit, rice, protein, and condiments. The food is beautifully presented and no one ever thinks to ask for seconds. “Enough is as good as a feast.”

And the food is delicious. The Michelin Restaurant Guide recently caused a furor in the world of gastronomy by overturning the pecking order of excellence when they awarded three stars—the highest ranking—to 16 Tokyo restaurants. By contrast, Paris had 10 and New York only 7. Perhaps even more startling and indicative of the general high quality of food in Tokyo was the award of one Michelin star to 169 restaurants in Tokyo, while Paris had 52 and New York 46.

Clearly, eating well doesn’t mean getting fat—at least in Tokyo.

The Lesson of Sustainable Health

For me, the health lesson that I learn every time I return to Tokyo is that the most sustainable health program is one that is embedded in our daily life. Rather than a separate program that we do for an hour a day, we’re better off with physical activity spread throughout the day, delicious food served in normal portion sizes, and social connections that remind us we’re part of a larger human endeavor.

Any way you look at it, Tokyo is a healthy place. That’s why I love Tokyo.

Written by Michael Birt, Director, Center for Sustainable Health.