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Watching waistlines: Japan Inc. tackles battle of the bulge in new campaign

Watching waistlines: Japan Inc. tackles battle of the bulge in new campaign

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 last few years, he's lost 42 pounds (19 kilograms).
The 45-year-old employee at electronics maker Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. is one of a growing new breed of Japan Inc.'s rank and file paying greater attention to their waistlines and calorie intake.
Fitness programs at Japanese companies like Matsushita, maker of Panasonic brand products, save on medical costs by preventing illnesses. And they are getting strengthened with legislation that add direct financial incentives for companies to have healthier workers.
Many corporations now have lunchtime aerobics sessions, cafeterias with low-calorie food, free handouts of pedometers and other efforts 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 ages between 40 and 74 take up the battle of the bulge by requiring waist measurements at health checkups _ part of this nation's larger efforts to guard against the ballooning costs of medical care, estimated at 30 trillion yen (US$285 billion) a year.
If companies don't shape up, they will in effect be penalized by the government in five years time, by having to shoulder a bigger portion of the annual 10 trillion yen (US$95 billion) 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 aged 65 or older total more than 27 million, or 21.5 percent of the population. With the birth rate dropping, 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.
Obesity in Japan is still under 5 percent of the population, according to the World Health Organization _ much lower than the U.S.
Historically, this nation 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 quite healthy.
But eating habits 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 (85 centimeters ) or more _ for women, 35 inches (90 centimeters) or more _ are categorized as having "metaboh."
Diets have been popular among Japanese women for some time, but what's distinctive about the recent trend is the male fascination with dieting.
Bottled teas promising anti-metabolic effects, soy snack bars and exercise DVDs are proving popular.
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 _ a sure way to add on pounds.
In addition to its health value, being fit has become more important for one's image and reputation, says Toshio Okada, who wrote a best-selling diet book, "Sayonara Mr. Fatty: A Diet Memoir," after losing 110 pounds (50 kilograms).
Workers can't command respect from their colleagues if they're chubby, he says.
"Now that I'm thin, people come up and tell me they actually never took me seriously when I was fat," said Okada, who used to weigh 258 pounds (117 kilograms ).
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 (104 kilograms ).
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 1,000 yen (US$9.50) worth of book store 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."
Panasonic began its health-awareness program in 2001, but is revving up efforts with an anti-metabolic campaign this year because of the new government regulations.
At one of the company's cafeterias in Tokyo, a special lunch recommended for guarding against "metaboh" consisted of tofu, noodles, sliced cucumber with seaweed and a few slices of an orange.
"When workers are very busy working, there is no time for them to think about their health," said Yoshikuni Sakamoto, a medical doctor for Panasonic's health insurance organization.
Sakamoto's job is to work with the union and the company to urge Panasonic's 159,000 workers in Japan covered by the company's insurance, and their families, to exercise more and count calories. This year's award for the workers' walk rally includes a Panasonic electric toothbrush.
Seitaro Dohi, who heads the health management department at Tokyo-based Mitsui Chemicals, says the company organizes yoga classes and offers low-calorie food at the company cafeteria to urge workers to stay fit.
One program allows workers to take digital photos of their meals with their Web-linking cell phones to receive instantaneous calorie counts from nutrition experts, he said.
"With all the attention on 'metaboh' lately, our job has become easier, and the awareness of workers about health is rising," he said.