If there were such a thing as the fountain of youth, it would be physical activity. And when I think about being physically active for the rest of my life, I take a page out of my father’s playbook.
As the commander of an underwater demolition team (UDT) in the Pacific, my dad spent the World War II in a swimsuit with a knife and explosives attached to his belt. He was suited to the work, having grown up swimming competitively, and for the rest of his life after the war, he made exercise a priority. Whether it was hammering out 20 laps in the pool, hiking in the woods, skiing, or riding his bike, Dad made it a point to move his body almost every day.
But there was more to his playbook than that. Dad never overdid it. He kept exercise fun and did just enough to keep in shape. I believe that was the key to his ability to stay active and uninjured until a week or two before he died at age 87.
In the clinic, I see so many patients with sports injuries caused by overuse. I’ve treated competitive, professional, and weekend athletes, many of whom had very preventable injuries. Often, they are so highly trained that their bodies are on a knife-edge between peak performance and complete breakdown. I’ve seen them go back to their sport before an injury is completely healed, only to reinjure themselves very quickly.
I have also treated many that are so depleted from their training regimen that they are either repeatedly injured or catch every cold or flu that’s going around and it takes months to restore their health.
In Chinese medicine, there are a number of underlying causes of illness, such as eating poorly, stress, emotional upsets, and traumatic injury. However, there is also a source of illness called overwork, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. When you work too many hours at anything, you can become depleted or injured. This can translate into too many hours at the office, caregiving without a break, studying for long periods, or exercising too much or too intensely.
According to Chinese medicine, both too little and too much exercise can lead to illness. When it comes to too much, the ancient text called The Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor (the Huangdi Nei Jing), states, “Overstrain or stress consumes the vital energy of the body.” This means that overworking weakens your Qi, the life force that drives every system in your body. As a result, your ability to heal and your resistance to illness is compromised.
So what’s the key to common sense and injury-free exercise until you’re 87 or older? Here are some strategies straight from my dad:
Mix things up. Dad never did the same thing day after day. His exercise was a mix of hiking, swimming, biking, and yard work. As a result, he was never injured.
Increase intensity gradually. If you’re working toward an event, such as a race, a hiking trip, or a long bike ride, increase your workouts very gradually. A good rule of thumb is to increase your training sessions by no more than 10 percent a week.
Recover. Think of rest and recovery as a key component to healthy exercise. By allowing your body to recover after a hard workout, you give it the opportunity to become fit—that’s called the training effect. Pushing the exercise envelope day after day only wears you down.
Heal. If you do become injured, allow yourself the time to heal. Resist the urge to test an injury before you’re completely better. I have seen many patients reinjure themselves or prolong their recovery because they didn’t allow their body the time it needed to fully heal.
Keep it fun. It can be easy to get caught up in the intensity of getting better or having to do your sport every day. However, that intensity can undermine the health benefits of exercise. If you remember to have fun with whatever activities you choose, your chances of becoming injured tend to be lower.
The bottom line is that moving your body is not meant to be a source of overwork, depletion, and injury. Instead, it can be the foundation of physical and mental health and longevity. The goal is to stay active throughout your life, not to burn out by overwork.
Lynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of “Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health.” This article was originally published on AcupunctureTwinCities.com