Workers limber up during office breaks with monkey bars, radio drills

by and


At the stroke of 1 p.m,, a group of Tokyo IT workers spring from their desks for a few minutes of rigorous bending, stretching and thrusting in repetition as a booming voice on the radio counts: “ichi, ni, san…”

The suited staff are taking part in a regular calisthenics drill implemented by Adoc International, while over at electrical equipment firm Fujikura, the staff can be seen dangling from multicolored monkey bars.

A growing number of firm are encouraging exercise breaks, to keep employees limber — and productive — as the nation contends with a shrinking labor pool and one of the world’s fastest aging populations.

“Japan’s population is quickly getting older and there are fewer and fewer kids — this is a very big risk for companies,” said Kenichiro Asano, who works in Fujikura’s health care strategy group.

With this issue in mind, companies are looking to keep staff healthy in the hope they’ll work past the usual retirement age.

“Keeping workers in shape is an important corporate strategy,” said Asano, adding, “Good health means a sound society and a sound company.”

Adoc International’s staff practice rajio taiso, a stretching routine often learned in schools and that dates back to the 1920s.

“We chose rajio taiso because it was the simplest exercise to put in place,” said Clifton Lay, who works in Adoc International’s human resources department.

“Most Japanese and people who grew up here already know it,” he added.

Instructions for the three-minute exercise are also played daily on NHK, with different routines tailored for the elderly and disabled.

Automaker Toyota has its own in-house version, while Sony employees are supposed to join in a group stretch at 3 p.m. daily, although it’s not mandatory.

At e-commerce giant Rakuten, some 12,000 moveable desks were installed when it moved its head office. Workers can switch between standing and sitting throughout the day.

“I get tired easily when I’m sitting too long so it’s nice to be able to stand up from time to time,” said 35-year-old Rakuten engineer Liu Xiaolu.

More companies need to adopt a health-focused mindset, said Koichiro Oka, a professor of health behavior science at Waseda University in Tokyo.

“If you think it is all right not to move much on weekdays because you’re exercising on weekends, you’d be wrong,” he said.

“A lack of exercise during the week can lead to heart disease, diabetes and other health problems,” he explained.

Rajio taiso is considered by many as Japanese tradition, although the idea was borrowed from a program at a U.S. insurance firm.

It spread quickly throughout Japan, as offices and schools got into the routine.

The daily radio broadcast was temporarily banned following Japan’s defeat in World War II because it was seen as being too militaristic. But it was reintroduced in 1951.

Today, as many as 28 million Japanese are believed to take part daily.

“Doing these exercises in the morning when you arrive at work or just after lunch — when your head is not completely into working — lets you get ready and say ‘OK let’s do the job,'” said Adoc’s Lay.