Japan's elderly playgrounds show fun is for everyone

TOKYO Mon Oct 26, 2009 5:28pm IST

Elderly people visit a public garden in Tokyo in this July 16, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Thomas White/Files

Elderly people visit a public garden in Tokyo in this July 16, 2009 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Thomas White/Files

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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Who says playgrounds are just for children? In Japan, the world's fastest aging society, the elderly are the ones taking to the climbing frame these days.

Many elderly Japanese are taking part in increasingly popular workout classes which use playground equipment designed for the country's rapidly graying population.

And with fewer and fewer people having children, and nearly a fifth of the 123 million population aged above 65, it made sense for local governments to disassemble children's playgrounds and convert them into fitness parks for the retired.

The workout classes, also funded by local governments, teach the elderly how to use the equipment.

"If I'm at home, I tend to slouch or lie down, but if I come here, I straighten my back, as everyone else is working out with so much energy," said Soichiro Saito, a 79-year-old who takes part in a once-a-week gym class.

Saito's class swing around on a specially designed climbing frame at a Tokyo park, walk down balance beams and stretch their muscle on poles under the watchful eyes of trainers.

Most of the senior citizens participating in the classes relish not only the exercises, but the company.

Many are isolated from the local community, either living on their own or with their elderly spouses. Others say they are taking the classes to remain fit and independent -- and out of hospitals or nursing homes.

"My legs got really heavy after I got sick, but they're lighter after the workout. My mind is cleared up as well," said Ikuko Yamakoshi, 77, who suffers from a chronic illness.

FUN KNOWS NO AGE LIMIT

With nearly 40,000 centenarians, Japan has the world's oldest population and continues to age fast.

The initial investment in an elderly playground starts at 8 million yen ($87,220), including the installation of equipment and instructors' fees.

While the costs are quite high, the Association of Physical Fitness Promotion And Guidance, the organization that conducts about 50 elderly workout classes across Japan and is funded by local governments, says demand has been steadily growing.

"There aren't many children using playground equipment now and most equipment is damaged and needs to be removed," said Masato Saijo, director of the association.

"So it was natural for us to replace old equipment with workout equipment for the elderly."

In 2007, there were over 15,000 pieces of elderly workout equipment installed in parks across Japan and the number has nearly tripled since 1998, according to a report by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Tourism in Japan.

The ministry also said the number of children, aged 12 or younger, using the playground daily has shrunk to 34 percent in 2007 compared to 50 percent in 1971.

By contrast, the number of senior citizens aged 65 or over using the playground daily has doubled during the same period.

Japan already boasts the longest life expectancy in the world, with experts citing healthy diet, quality health care and a tradition of active pensioners as factors in the phenomenon.

And as more elderly citizens live longer and remain active, the association's Saijo said no one is ever too old to have fun.

"Anyone can try this workout even if you're 85. No prior experience or preparation is necessary. All you have to do is come out here and start working out," he said.

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)

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