We can learn a lot from Okinawan elders. Not just awesome karate, but we can all adopt their ways to live longer. Okinawa is known for having the highest population of adults over 100 years old, and more importantly, the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world, meaning they tend to live longer, higher quality lives. Genetics play a role in longevity, but there are many habits and lifestyle practices from Okinawa that can help us to live longer, healther, more satisfying lives.
1. HARA HACHI BU: 80% FULL
Hara hachi bu, practiced in Okinawa means to stop eating when you feel 80 percent full. Our stomachs have a delayed communication with our brains. So if we eat until we feel full, we have already overeaten. Instead, if we notice when we feel about eight tenths full, and stop eating then, we will be eating a much healthier amount. Hara hachi bu will help you keep or attain a healthier weight. On the other hand, if Mom told you to finish everything on your plate, that rule will help you be overweight.
Not all of Mom’s advice was bad, though. If she told you to eat your vegetables, that is the single most important point of simple advice for good health. The average American eats three servings of fruits and vegetables daily, while the average Okinawan elder eats 11! Experts in the US currently recommend eating five to nine daily servings. (Okinawan elders eat mostly vegetables, with fruit being a smaller part of this portion of their diet.) Upping your intake of fruits and vegetables will not only provide soluble and insoluble fiber, but also a whole host of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and all kinds of other good stuff that will boost your immune system and prevent and reduce inflammation.
3. STAY ACTIVE TO LIVE LONGER
Okinawan elders don’t shy away from exercise and physical activity. They still do karate, walk, play with their great grandchildren, garden, and even climb trees to harvest fruit, well past the senior-citizen-discount-age. The old adage, use it or lose it applies here. Fit physical activity into your daily habits. Also, find active things that you enjoy and keep on pursuing them.
4. BODY MASS INDEX
BMI is your height to weight ratio. It is a general indicator of whether your weight is healthy or not. Okinawan elders tend to have lower body mass indexes, even below the healthy range listed in American BMI calculators. Practices 1, 2 and 3 above can help cultivate a healthier body mass index. If you want to know your BMI, you need to know your height and weight, and here is an adult BMI calculator.
5. IKIGAI: PURPOSE
Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means “reason for being.” Basically, it is a reason for getting up in the morning, each day. The individual has to find or make their own reason. Your ikigai is personal to you. It can be something like work, raising children, hobbies, helping others, etc.
6. LIVE LONGER IN COMMUNITY
Okinawans, like mainland Japanese, identify very strongly with being a part of and representing their family, and more widely their community. In addition, they each participate in their own social group called a moai. They will meet regularly with the same people in their moai throughout their life. Each member will add small amounts to the the moai fund regularly, and if a member has a problem that needs financial support, the group will give the fund to that member. That is just one way the moai helps support members.
Long-lived elders feel their connection to a higher power and are not afraid of their spiritual side. They hold a reverence and gratitude for life. They also cultivate their spirituality with meditation and prayer.
8. THINK POSITIVE
Are you familiar with positive affirmations? Okinawan elders use them to their advantage. Particularly in the healing process. If they are sick or injured, they will write a positive affirmation and place it near their bed. They will see it before going to sleep and upon awakening, and will think their way to better health.
9. ISLAND TIME
The small island of Okinawa has been on island time for centuries. Japan may have influenced it in the last century to be more timely and stressed about the clock. But traditionally, on Okinawa, you arrive at community meetings when you arrive. It might be 15 minutes before the set time, or it might be later, up to a half hour after the set time. Everybody would know that and they would not stress out about it. The key here is to minimize stress by adopting a looser vision of how things “ought to” go. We can apply that to so many other parts of our lives, and learn to go with the flow.
I am grateful to Okinawa not only for developing and passing down the karate that has changed my life, but also for giving me a traditional culture so rich in healthy practices. If we choose to adopt them, they can help us develop ourselves into healthy, whole people in all four areas of the physical, mental, social and spiritual. And they can help us to live longer, healthier, happier lives.
By Jenifer Tull-Gauger