Why the Elderly Rule the Gym

Every time I visit my local gym in Minatomirai, I am both surprised and impressed by the number of elderly patrons swimming laps, taking yoga lessons, pumping iron, and generally taking care of their bodies through regular exercise. The blue-haired, tank-topped, spandexed sexagenarians at my gym are dynamos; they aerobicize, handle the weight machines like pros, and have forged a tight-knit community dedicated toward healthy living. But where are the gym rats of the younger generation? While I have observed a fair number of men in their 20s and 30s hitting the weights at my gym, the young female population is largely non-existent.
In talking with one fitness trainer, I learned that the practice of exercising at the gym has not yet caught on in Japan among young people. I suppose cultural differences can explain this:
Many women, the trainer explained, choose extreme fad diets, usually involving consuming copious amounts of one food (the apple diet, anyone?), over regular exercise in order to maintain their desired body weight. They also subscribe to the ideal of “dieting,” whose goal is to lose weight fast rather than the ideal of “fitness,” which encourages daily exercise to maintain a healthy lifestyle. These paradigms—dieting=bad, fitness=good—have become so widely accepted in American society that we hardly ever hear the word “diet” anymore unless in a negative context.
Another cultural difference:
When I lived in Seattle, I lived a largely sedentary life, teaching at my college, sitting at my desk preparing lectures, lounging on my sofa grading papers. I zipped from station to station in my beat-up Honda Civic, nary breaking a sweat. And so, I was eager to cruise down (yes, I drove) to my local gym and work up a sweat at the end of the day.
It was only after I moved to Japan that I realized why most Japanese are as lithe and slender as they are. Every day, I walk ten minutes from my apartment to the train station, where there are no less than six flights of stairs to climb and descend. While I take a breather on the escalator, countless salarymen and schoolgirls leave me in their dust, as they bound up the escalator in a cardio-frenzy. On any given day on campus, I might have to labor up nine flights of stairs to reach my office because the elevator is packed. Heck, I walk 20 minutes to my gym just so I can pedal 40 minutes on a stationary bicycle, only to walk 20 minutes back to my apartment. In short, why go to a gym to burn off calories when there is so much good exercise to be had just by going through our day?
These and countless other cultural observations about living in Japan have been an endless source of joy and at times, bewilderment. Such discoveries are one of the true pleasures of getting to know cultures other than our own. I hope to share more of my experiences in the coming months. (Takami Nieda)