As Japan pushes fitness, it's shape up or pay up

Prodded by his company, Keiji Okuda started walking 40 minutes to his office instead of riding the train, working out three times a week at the gym and eating buckwheat noodles for lunch instead of meat.

Over the past few years, he's lost about 42 pounds.

The 45-year-old employee at Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. is one of a growing breed of Japan Inc.'s rank and file paying greater attention to their waistlines and calorie intake.

Fitness programs at Japanese companies like Matsushita, the maker of Panasonic brand products, save on medical costs by preventing illnesses. And now they are getting strengthened with legislation that adds financial incentives for companies to have healthier workers.

Many corporations have lunchtime aerobics sessions and cafeterias with low-calorie food. They hand out free pedometers and take other measures to fight the latest imported buzzword: “metaboh,” short for “metabolic syndrome” – the cluster of symptoms linked with obesity, high cholesterol and blood sugar, large waistlines and risks of heart disease.

The government initiative, which kicked in April 1, requires companies to have workers aged 40 to 74 take up the battle of the bulge by requiring waist measurements at health checkups – part of the nation's larger efforts to guard against the ballooning costs of medical care, estimated at $285 billion a year.

If companies don't shape up, they will have to shoulder a bigger portion of the annual $95billion in private-sector payments that feed into a government-run national health care insurance for people 75 and older, under new laws.

Japan is taking its health concerns seriously because its population is rapidly aging. Those 65 or older total more than 27 million, or 21.5 percent of the population. By the 2050s, 40 percent of the population is expected to be 65 or older.

Avoiding disease caused by unhealthy diets and lack of exercise is considered critical to keeping down towering health care costs.

Historically, Japan hasn't had the weight problems of the U.S. and some parts of Europe, partly because the traditional diet of fish, vegetables and rice is generally healthy. Obesity in Japan is still under 5 percent of the population, according to the World Health Organization, much lower than the U.S.

But eating habits in Japan have been changing, including the acceptance of fast food and Western-style cooking, which tend to include more meat, fat and sugar.

For Japanese 40 or older, as many as half the men and one out of five women have metabolic syndrome, the government says.

Some companies are measuring the waists of all their employees, regardless of age. Men with waistlines of 33 inches or more — for women, 35 inches or more — are categorized as having “metaboh.”

Experts say the country's workaholic corporate culture is partly to blame for health problems.

Many “salarymen,” as white-collar workers are called in Japan, spend sedentary lives, working long hours, eating meals at their desks and jumping into stalls that serve meat over rice and other starchy dishes that typically are gulped down.

Okuda, the Panasonic worker, used to be trim when he played tennis and volleyball during his student days. But he began to put on the pounds over his 20 years as a company man, climbing to 229 pounds.

When he began to have problems breathing, he was alarmed at the idea that he may die during a business trip.

He went on a fitness regimen. He even won $9.50 worth of bookstore coupons, courtesy of Panasonic, for taking 350,588 steps a month in a “walk rally” for workers last year.

“It's fun to walk,” he said. “I feel lighter on my feet. And I feel more nimble mentally, too.”