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How to Fit in Workouts (Beyond Just Ambient Exercise) in Japan

It’s not always easy to stay healthy and fit in Japan. When you change occupations, often your entire lifestyle shifts, and this is particularly so when you move to a new country. The food, environment, and even your schedule are likely to be different. Even perceptions about weight and health are often intrinsically tied with local values. As I wrote in a previous article, I struggled with controlling my weight in Japan compared to my lifestyle in the US. This time, I want to pivot from healthy meals and focus on another crucial aspect of staying healthy: getting enough exercise. This caused me a lot of stress when I studied abroad in Nagoya and after I graduated from university and moved to Utsunomiya.

The Problem

The picture shows legs of workers in suits walking in Tokyo

A relative lack of exercise was surprisingly one of the most difficult things for me to adapt to when I moved to Japan. Back home as a student, I walked several kilometers each day around my college campus and partook in dance fitness classes almost every evening. On the other hand, since Japan is relatively urban, geographically concentrated, and much more reliant on public transportation than the predominantly car-culture US, walking to train or bus stations or otherwise biking to work or school is the norm in large swaths of the country. Many Japanese people walk or bike for about 30-60 minutes a day instead of “working out.” Compared to the US, going to the gym is not a common hobby or scheduled activity, and gym memberships tend to be significantly more expensive than their American counterparts–if a gym exists in a town at all. When I moved to Utsunomiya (a semi-urban city), I found that to join a Zumba class, I would have to ride my bike or take a bus for at least 45 minutes one-way just to get to a community center and then pay a fee each time that would add up quickly.

Ambient exercise built into daily life typically is enough for many Japanese people, but I struggled with this. I needed more than just ambient physical activity; without the workout from cardio and strengthening exercise, I started gaining weight and losing my stamina and endurance both times I moved to Japan from the US. I had to figure out how to balance my new life in Japan with my fitness lifestyle back home. Here is how I worked it out.

Find Ways to Exercise Responsibly at Home

A woman is doing a workout at home

Today, this feels all the more important in the time of COVID-19 and anxiety about social fitness. This may be easier said than done, as many people live in apartments, and due to the high humidity, carpet (a useful noise reducer) is something of a rarity across the country. In Utsunomiya, I lived on the top floor of an apartment complex with wooden floors and had just enough space to work out in my living room if I shuffled some furniture around. As I mentioned, I didn’t live near a gym that I felt I would get enough use out of relative to the price. In the end, I managed to accomplish getting good workouts regularly at home without overly disturbing my downstairs neighbors. How?

No matter what kind of exercise you do, buy a thick yoga or pilates mat or floor rugs. While these mats won’t completely muffle your impact and noise, they will help (although try not to exercise at odd hours, such as when your neighbors are likely sleeping). These may slip around a bit with cardio, so I recommend you also invest in some rubber grips to place underneath. If your local stores (ex. Don Quixote) don’t supply these, you can always buy some online.

Next, take advantage of all the amazing content available on the internet. YouTube is your friend. You can find professional-quality workouts for just about anything: HIIT, Zumba, pilates, yoga, cardio kickboxing, Bollywood fitness, Body Pump, hula fitness, etc. Save your favorites or make a playlist. I also recommend including “low-impact” as a regular search term, since this will minimize jumping and be more neighbor-friendly. You can also download videos for offline use if you have a rooftop or park you feel comfortable exercising at.

Incorporate More Active Exercise Into Your Life

A man is climbing stairs

Like many people, I don’t always have the time and energy to do a longer exercise routine before or after work or school. If you need to find a happy medium between ambient exercise and a workout, analyze where you could be adding in a bit more fitness naturally.

If you sit at a desk frequently, perhaps buying an under-the-desk pedal will help. Bike to (or at least closer to) your destination instead of taking the bus or train. If you’re close enough, walk instead of biking. If you already walk, try speed walking to increase your heart rate and burn more calories. When I worked on the seventh floor of an office building, I took the stairs as often as I could. On days when I couldn’t climb the full amount, I would take the elevator only halfway. Take a look at your surroundings, and make the world your gym.

A man and a woman are in a gym. they are doing a high-five.

Final Thoughts

As with healthy eating, exercising well can have an enormous impact on your wellbeing, affecting both physical and mental health. Research has proven that regular physical activity can help with depression, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping, all of which can be particularly exacerbated by culture shock. I found that my mood improved significantly after exercising in the little section of my apartment and getting into the habit of regularly exercising improved my overall well-being. I hope you can find the best ways to stay healthy and fit in Japan and let us know if you have any more tips!

Kelsey is an American writer, translator, and educator. Japan feels like her second home, and she loves exploring new countries and learning the local languages while she’s at it. Apart from English and Japanese, she is also conversant in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Swahili, and Bengali. She’s an avid lover of dance, dogs, and tea.