In the early 1920s, MetLife Insurance sponsored daily 15 minute calisthenics programs to be broadcast over the radio to American audiences in an effort to make them healthier and fitter. It didn’t catch on here, but visiting Japanese officials loved the idea enough to bring it back to Japan. To commemorate the coronation of Emperor Hirohito in 1928, Japanese public radio began daily broadcasts of rajio taiso, or “radio calisthenics.” Every morning Japanese citizens, young and old, would gather to perform a short circuit of dynamic stretches, joint mobility drills, and bodyweight exercises in time to broadcasted piano music. Participation has dropped off in recent years, but even today about 20% of the Japanese population (and three quarters of elementary school students) still does the daily routine, which has remained unchanged for almost a century.
The actual routine is about what you’d expect: lots of arm circles, bending over, squats, toe touching. Constant movement, none of it very intense. If you live in an area with a large Asian/Asian-American population, particularly Chinese or Japanese, you’ve probably seen the older folks walking around in the morning swinging their arms, clapping, or doing light circuit routines with each other in parks. Maybe even a little tai-chi. This is very similar to rajio taiso, and it seems quite popular in many Asian countries. China and Vietnam have their own traditions of morning workouts.
What makes rajio taiso and other similar traditions so interesting and useful?
It fosters a culture of physical activity. CrossFit and other similar programs also foster a healthy fitness culture and community, but it’s not available to everyone. Not everyone wants to pay a couple hundred bucks a month or hoist barbells. But everyone can do ten to fifteen minutes of light, moderate movement to start the day and see real benefits that should promote further activity.
It’s better than nothing (which is what many people do). I’m just being honest here, folks. Some people won’t ever work out or even walk around the block if they can help it. A quick little warmup in the morning that gets the blood flowing and heart rate up is better than doing absolutely nothing.
It employs dynamic, rather than static stretching. It’s unclear whether static stretching is useful or not and, for many types of exercises, it’s probably counterproductive. Rajio taiso stretching is almost entirely dynamic. You’re moving through full ranges of motion as you would when exercising, not pausing in extension for as long as you can stand the pain. Most athletes (recreational or professional alike) would benefit far more from dynamic stretches.
There aren’t many formal studies on rajio taiso. A Pubmed search for “radio calisthenics” and related terms comes up empty. The rates of degenerative diseases caused by physical inactivity, however, are much lower in Japan and neighboring countries with a tradition of morning calisthenics.
In the United States, for example, about 37% of adults 20+ have prediabetes (impaired glucose tolerance and/or elevated blood markers) and 12.3% have full-on diagnosed type 2 diabetes (PDF). In Japan, 13.5% of the population has either impaired glucose tolerance or type 2 diabetes.
This doesn’t prove anything, but it hints at the benefits of a culture where physical activity is integrated into everyday life. And it’s certainly intriguing. I’ve always admired the spryness of the elderly Asian folks I see exercising in parks or squatting to grab a choice bunch of broccoli at the farmer’s markets. I run with a fairly fit crowd of oldsters, so I’m no stranger to able-bodied elderly. But comparing the average Japanese senior citizen to the average age-matched American senior citizen? It’s no contest. What if these early morning workout traditions are a big reason for the difference?
So for the past week, I’ve given the rajio taiso routine a trial run using these two videos (part 1 and part 2). I’m quite impressed. Here’s what I found:
My joints felt warm the rest of the day. Whenever I’d go to do my actual “real” workout, I felt warmed up and ready to go – even if it was a late afternoon workout. The warmth persisted.
My heart rate was mildly elevated. This wasn’t a CrossFit WOD, nor was it trying to be. It was a pleasant way to get your body moving in the morning.
It didn’t wear me out. The rajio taiso never impacted my performance in subsequent workouts. I wasn’t fatigued, nor had I lost the motivation to work out.
It took ten minutes, max. The important thing was just setting aside the brief chunk of time to do it. For me, it was while my coffee was brewing. I’d stand barefoot in the backyard on the grass (still wet and cold from dew) and do the routine, then have my coffee. Painless and it’s not like I had anything else going on.
It energized me. Maybe it was standing in the damp cool grass first thing after waking. Maybe it was the coffee I had immediately after. But these rajio taiso routines got my blood flowing and my brain working well. It felt right.
My buddy and PrimalCon presenter Angelo dela Cruz has been telling me about the innumerable benefits of daily morning movement sessions – his particular version is called VitaMoves, which I strongly recommend – for so long that I felt I had to give it a shot. I’ve flirted with the morning movement session, but never daily, and never for a week straight.
Now that I have, I’m a convert. I’m not sure I’ll stick with this particular routine exclusively – that rajio taiso piano piece gets a little grating, after all, and I’d like to try some new moves – but I’ll definitely be doing morning movement sessions.
If you’re interested in trying morning movement sessions or light workouts, you don’t have to follow rajio taiso. You could try out the aforementioned VitaMoves or even Winnie the Pooh’s morning routine. But doing something, even just a few sets of air squats and pushups to get your body moving when you wake up will make a big difference. Let me know how it works out for you guys.
Thanks for reading! What’s your morning movement routine?
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Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.