Fighting the flab and shaping up can also be a lot of fun


New Year’s resolution? “Doing more exercise,” you may say.

Keeping in good shape or going on a diet are invariably popular new-year ambitions for thousands faced with rather too many inches to pinch after all those Christmas binges and huge o-shogatsu feasts in the bosom of the family.

In this age of washing machines, convenience foods and even room-cleaning robots, more and more people worry about how to stay — or become — healthy, when their daily lives often involve so little physical exercise.

And as medical experts are forever reminding us, due to the dangers of many lifestyle-related diseases, fitness is not merely a matter of vanity. In the past few years, in particular, the term “metabolic syndrome” has come to be widely used as a catchall referring to accumulated internal fat around the organs that can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes and even heart attacks. In Japan, according to the Health Labor and Welfare Ministry, about a sixth of the population has, or is at risk of, developing this condition.

To help counter metabolic syndrome, from April this year the ministry has decided to add waist-size measurements to the health checkup programs for insured people aged 40 or older.

But judging from the collective psyche of this country, it seems many are taking matters into their own hands as well, actually carrying through on those exercise resolutions in an amazing variety of ways.

Obviously there are any number of fitness clubs proclaiming how — at a price — they can help you to lose weight or lower your BMI (Body Mass Index; a measure of fatness based on your height and weight). Then there are all those videos — with “Billy’s Boot Camp” being one recent craze in Japan. And if that seems too tame, there are also horse-riding fitness machines and “one-coin fitness clubs” at which the use of all the exercise machines costs a flat-fee of ¥500.

Altogether it’s a huge and growing business, with a leisure white paper compiled by the Japan Productivity Center For Socio-Economic Development last year telling us that in 2006 the fitness-club market recorded its all-time high turnover of a whopping ¥427 billion. Researchers only see these fitness businesses continuing to grow — especially when the new health checkup program is introduced in spring.

“People have been told how lifestyle-related diseases can lead to serious illness, and they are becoming more concerned about their health,” said Masatsugu Kato, a researcher at the Yano Research Institute. A survey by the institute late last year of 609 people aged 20 to 69 found about 80 percent of them had some health worries.

“Also, many people are constantly worrying that they are not exercising enough,” Kato said. “These two aspects greatly contribute to the current fitness trend, and it will continue this year, too.”

Kato predicted that “passive” fitness machines will become more popular in 2008, including those horse-riding machines and also vibrating belts that users can strap on to help shake off their excess weight without actually exerting themselves as they would have to on a running machine.

“You like it more if it is easy,” Kato said “and in fact, people are often very busy and can’t take much time out for exercise. So easy fitness machines are likely to get more popular this year.”

But who knows?

Being out of shape may be no laughing matter healthwise — but as TIMEOUT sets out to show this week, carrying through on those New Year’s resolutions to fight the flab can also be a lot of fun.