How Exercise Works According to Chinese Medicine
I grew up in a swimming pool. My dad was a swimmer both in college and during World War II, and he expected us kids to be swimmers, too. I remember every summer weekday practicing at the local swim club, come rain or shine. Sometimes it was fun; sometimes not so much, but there was never a question about whether or not we wanted to participate; it was what we did.
So you would think as an adult I might reject all things active, but in reality just the opposite is true. I have remained active throughout my life, and I attribute that to the ethic I developed from those early years in the pool.
It has not always been easy to stay motivated to exercise; it has been a constant struggle to this day. However, over the years I used various tricks and strategies that have helped. In the days that I was running a lot, a local road race was a great motivator. Hiking trips, active vacations, having an exercise buddy, switching activities, or working with a trainer have kept me going over the years, especially when I wasn’t feeling the exercise love.
I also realize that if there were such a thing as the fountain of youth, exercise would be it. Whether we are talking about Western medicine or Chinese medicine, the consensus is that being physically active is a good thing. However, while Western medicine focuses mostly on the physical and physiological benefits of activity, Chinese medicine has a slightly different spin. Here are a few thoughts on exercise, based on Chinese theory.
1. Movement Creates More Movement
In Chinese medicine, good health is all about movement in the form of flow. Chinese medicine is energetic in nature, and the two basic tenets are that first, you need enough energy for your body to perform. and second, that energy needs to flow. Think about it: Blood flows through your vessels, food moves through your digestive system, and nerve signals flow to and from your brain. Even your emotions flow. When that flow is impeded, you begin to have signs and symptoms of imbalance. Blood clots, heart disease, indigestion, heartburn, neuropathy, stress, and depression—these are all symptoms that your flow has been hindered in some way.
So when I say that movement creates more movement, I am also saying that movement creates flow. When you exercise, you are ramping up your heart and lungs, and your blood gets moving. Your muscles are firing, and even your digestion is moving a little better. On the emotional front, feel-good endorphins are circulating in your brain in increasing numbers. This fuels the flow of joyfulness—or releases stress at the very least. Exercise is the antidote to stagnation on every level.
2. Pay Attention to the Balance of Work and Rest
While exercise is active and warming and considered to be yang in nature, rest and sleep are rejuvenating and yin in nature. You need enough of both to stay healthy and balanced.
3. A Few Words on Overdoing It
In Chinese medicine, something called overwork is a real thing and is considered to be a cause of illness. Too many hours at the office, caregiving without relief, studying too long, and over exercising are all considered to be overworking. Exercise is a good thing, but it is absolutely possible to do too much. If you’re increasing your exercise levels, remember to only bump it up by about ten percent a week. Some common signals that you’re overtraining is a disruption in your sleep, irritability, and overuse injuries.
4. Pay Attention to the Yin and Yang of the Seasons
When I first moved to Minnesota, I was committed to running regardless of the weather outdoors. I managed to run even when the temperature was well below zero. After a couple of years, I developed exercise induced asthma, which was triggered by the cold weather—a note from my body that maybe I needed to take a break on the coldest days of the winter.
Your body will be happier if you pay attention to seasonal shifts. During the spring and especially in the summer, you’re meant to go outside and play. Then as the days turn cooler and winter sets in, what your body really wants is a little less exercise and a little more rest and warmth. So in honor of the yin and yang of the seasons, I do a lot more exercise outdoors during the warm months, and either slow down or take my activity indoors when it’s really cold outside.
5. Take It Outside When You Can
Chinese medicine is based on patterns in nature. When you are outside, you’re more in touch with the natural world. You can feel the weather changing, hear the birds migrating, and see the plants sprouting in the spring. Being outdoors in nature puts you in touch not only with your own natural patterns, but it puts you in touch with the divine qi—the power that allows seasons to change, plants to grow, and the sun to shine. This is a good thing.
The bottom line is that exercise is kind of like a magic bullet—it keeps your body functional and your mind active. The challenge is to stay motivated; exercise should be fun, it should feel good, and it should mostly be done outdoors.