I’m often told that we “must prepare for our old age now”. By Okinawan standards, that means most of us have got a fair bit of work to do because here, you don’t qualify as ‘old’ until you're at least approaching triple digits. Okinawas have long been famous for their ability to seemingly defy the aging process. They have among the longest life expectancies in the world but they don’t just live longer than the rest of us, they live better. Even with the highest ratio of centenarians ( 34.7 centenarians for every 100,000 inhabitants), Okinawans have among the lowest levels of coronary heart disease and stroke; osteoporosis, cancer and dementia. And for the most part, they live active and vibrant lives right to the very end.
'Goyukkuri' Relaxing in Yogi Park, Naha
A little while ago Sensei told us about an Okinawan friend of his; a 104-year-old man who has been practicing karate for most of his life. When Sensei asked him his secret to longevity and good health he answered “vegetables, chess, sanchin”. To this day he still plays Go (Japanese Chess) and practices sanchin kata in Yogi Koen – a local park not far from the Honbu dojo. And, while to most Westerners, it might seem strange to see a park that’s usually devoid of children and full to the brim with old men; it’s really nothing out of the ordinary here – in a city where it’s common to see people in their 70s, 80s and 90s cycling around on bicycles, working, gardening, jogging, and stretching at the traffic lights.
So, do Okinawans have the secrets to living a long, healthy life? A number of leading scientists certainly seem to think so. And, while good genes clearly play a role, it may only go 1/3 of the way to explaining Okinawans' anti-aging ability. Research conducted by the Okinawan Centenarian Study have found that when Okinawans live Western lifestyles – like many of the younger generation – they may start to lose some of their age-defying qualities. If you're interested in what they've got to say, there’s a great little documentary by Horizon called ‘How to Live a Long and Healthy Life’. I've included part one of the five part series below:
So, what are their secrets? Well it seems that a key factor is DIET – a balanced low calorie diet, rich in low GI, complex carbohydrates, seafood and sea veggies, omega oils, fruit and lots of veg as well as other natural herbs, spices and high-fiber foods like beans, legumes, sweet potato, whole grains and konnyaku. They also eat twice as much fish as the Japanese, five times as much veg as the average Westerner and more kombu, kelp and tofu than anyone else in the world.
And while I must confess to picking out all the bitter green stuff first time I tried goya champuru, somewhere along the lines my body must have had words with my taste-buds because these days I find myself eating it almost every day and sometimes even craving the stuff after training.
But maybe it’s not just about what the Okinawans eat, but what they don't. Until recently at least, the traditional Okinawan diet has consisted of nutrient rich, unprocessed whole foods – fresh, organic, home-grown produce that you can buy daily at the local markets. And in addition to avoiding preservatives and additives, their traditional diet is also very low in sugar and salt (approx 1/4 the average amount consumed in Japan).
Okinawans also have a saying, “hara hachi bu”, which means 'eat until your to 80% full'. Maybe easier said than done, but given that it takes 10-20 minutes for our stomachs to signal we’ve had enough, leaving a little space at the end of a meal is a good rule of thumb to prevent overeating.
In addition to diet, their other secrets may be related to the way Okinawans live - a LIFE STYLE that's fulfilling, connected and reasonably stress-free. Despite being one of the poorest prefectures of Japan, Okinawans are generally well know for their friendly nature, optimistic attitude and laid-back way of living. The locals here often talk about 'Okinawan time' which seems to tick by much slower than life on the mainland or in the West for that matter. Sometimes they'll even refer to themselves as lazy (and maybe blame the heat), but their positive and carefree attitudes might just be one of their best kept secrets.
Beyond that, staying ACTIVE is clearly something the Okinawan oldies have down pat. Perhaps that's where as the birth-place of karate, the many traditional martial arts available here have the advantage of being something one can practice (as many do) right into their wrinkly years. There really is something reassuring in knowing that our martial arts training might just be preparing us for that ongoing fight against old age.