Exercise and Chinese Medicine:
finding the balance in keeping fit
As an Acupuncturist I help a huge variety of people with all different kinds of conditions, but one of the most common is the running injury. Acupuncture works extremely well for sports injuries, from plantar fasciitis to runner’s knee, back problems and tight IT bands. But what I am most fascinated about is what drives runners, or any endurance athlete come to think of it, to carry on even when in pain.
The Western Ideal
In the West we generally believe that the more physical exercise we do – and I mean LOTS of exercise! – the better it is for us and it will help us live longer. But I think we just made this up in our heads; there is no actual evidence that body builders or elite athletes live any longer than the average human. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite.
These days fitness is gauged on how you look, so it’s all about six-packs and ‘just doing it’, and if social media is anything to go by (which it isn’t) they all look great and live perfect lives. But I doubt they are any healthier than the average person who just does a moderate amount of exercise and eats and rests well.
So, is being fit the same as being healthy? Not really. Looking great isn’t necessarily the same as feeling great.
Anyone can run
When it comes to health, exercise is a lot like food. What I mean is, we know sprouts are good for us but if that was all we ate, then there would soon be problems.
If you are into running, then you know how addictive it can be. You start off just jogging around the block, and before you know it you are signing up for your first ultra! But maybe that was just me…
Unlike activities like martial arts or dancing which take an element of skill, running is much more accessible. Anyone can run and I suppose that is part of the appeal. It is literally just putting one foot in front of the other, or controlled falling over. You don’t need to spend loads of money on equipment and clothing. You don’t even have to join a club. A good quality pair of running shoes is probably the only thing that will set you back a bit. And no one needs to show you how to run; we’ve been doing it for a long time!
There is nothing new about running
Ancient man used to run for long periods in order to track and wear out prey, the idea being that animals cannot regulate their body heat by sweating as man can, so they eventually cannot flee any further and so succumb to the hunters. This is known as persistence hunting. Hunters still use this method today, notably the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and Rarámuri people in Mexico.
It has also been suggested that the gluteus maximus muscle evolved to enable man to run. So it’s not just for sitting on.
Running for fun
What is new, however, is running for fun. The craze of jogging began in the 1970’s and was led by Jim Fixx, who started running to get fitter. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack at the age of 52 while out jogging. Despite this irony, there is no doubt that jogging is better than sitting around smoking and eating crisps. Most probably Mr. Fixx would have died at 42 if he hadn’t started jogging.
So when does running become not good for you?
Exercise is important in Chinese Medicine. It keeps the Qi moving, which is good for body and Mind. It also prevents the accumulation of Dampness. Think of a wet tea towel that has just been screwed up and left in a corner. After a while it becomes a bit stinky; it needs to be hung out to let the air circulate. Your body is the same – the cells need oxygenating. It is important to keep moving, whatever age you are. A used hinge does not rust.
But balance is the key: Chinese Medical theory makes it clear that any type of extreme is not a good thing. The ancient Taoist masters state that people should not only avoid overindulging, but also over exertion, which they say exhausts the sinews and bones.
Basically, doing too much exercise is as bad as doing none.
I used to run a lot. At the height of my training I was running 75 miles a week. I thought nothing about getting up at 5am on a Sunday and running for 5 hours. I loved running but looking back I can see I was mostly chasing the fix. Like any addiction, the pleasurable part is satisfying the cravings, not the actual thing itself.
While there is evidence that jogging (that is, running between 1 and 2.5 hours a week at a slow or average pace) can increase your lifespan by 6.2 years for men and 5.6 for women, the reverse is true for more running.
Studies suggest that by doing more doesn’t mean more benefit, in fact it can mean the reverse. Excessive exercise can cause damage to the heart and coronary arteries, increasing the risk of heart problems and risk of stroke. Although a slow resting heartbeat (as low as 40 bpm in some athletes) is considered to be a sign of good health, this may not be the case once they stop engaging in high levels of exercise.
Other studies have also shown that endurance athletes have weak immune systems and are more prone to colds and asthma. Over-exercising in young women can also cause amenorrhea (periods stopping) and other menstrual disorders, as well as reduced bone density.
Running can also become an addiction. Just the same as having to use caffeine, alcohol or drugs to get moving, running is the same.
Although I’ve focused on running, the same applies equally to any endurance sport. But whatever your fix is, it’s deceptive. These things provide an initial high, but then an immediate slump. So, at risk of repeating myself, it’s all about balance, just as Yin and Yang informs us that one extreme will only ever lead to its opposite extreme. Somewhere in the middle is needed.
For some people exercise can become more and more important in their routine, to a point where it disrupts their work and personal relationships. They feel frustrated and depressed when they can’t get their ‘fix’. In Chinese Medicine this is related to Qi and Blood stagnation. The more hooked we become, the more we need to move our Qi and Blood to feel invigorated.
The free flow of energy can also be blocked by emotions and stress, which is why running can feel so good for our mental health. But although you feel good for a short time after exercising, it doesn’t deal with whatever emotion is causing your Qi to be blocked. So, it is a vicious circle of depletion. And it’s tough physically on those who have to run 30 or 40 miles a week just to clear their heads and feel ‘normal’.
So what is ‘good’ exercise?
Moderation is the key. As I mentioned above, moderate exercise is good for you. The NHS currently recommend we exercise at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, such as cycling or brisk walking every week and strength exercises on 2 or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).
However, the danger with anything that is ‘prescribed’ is that it doesn’t take the individual into account; it certainly isn’t a holistic approach. And it still isn’t clear what moderate is. Some people can knock out 10k with the minimum of training, while others can barely make it down the stairs in the morning.
Chinese traditional exercise then emphasizes the internal rather than the external. In Chinese culture a big belly was traditionally seen as having an abundance of Qi. Unfortunately, the cult of the six-pack is now huge and men and women all-around the world are flogging and starving themselves to look like whippets.
A more holistic approach to exercise
Before the Industrial Revolution exercise was part of everyday life. Working on the land or in a cottage industry, one walked, pulled, pushed, lifted. We washed our own clothes and kneaded our own bread. Life was the multi gym!
And even up to not long ago, most of us walked to work, or at least to the bus stop or station. Now we drive everywhere. Which isn’t anyone’s fault other than that of the town planners. Imagine having to walk to Tesco’s to do the main shop!
So, what we need is a more holistic, mindful, approach to exercise, not the one-size-fits-all type that most often leads to injury or just simply quitting.
Qi Gong – the Chinese method of keeping fit
A lot of people do Qi Gong and they do it for a variety of reasons. At the height of its popularity in China during the 1980s, it is estimated that up to one hundred million Chinese were practicing Qi Gong.
People who are interested in Qi Gong come from all different backgrounds and practice it for many different reasons. Some people do it just for exercise and recreation, while others use it as a preventive medicine and as a self-healing technique. Some do it for self-cultivation and meditation, and others to compliment their martial arts training. And some do it for all these reasons.
What is Qi Gong?
The roots of Qi gong are in Daoist theory. Daoists believe that energy in nature moves perfectly, so by connecting to nature our own energy will move perfectly.
Qi is usually translated as life energy, life-force, or energy flow, and definitions often involve breath, air, gas, or relationship between matter, energy, and spirit. Qi is the central underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts.
Gong is often translated as cultivation or work, and definitions include practice, skill, mastery, merit, achievement, service, result, or accomplishment. It is often used to mean gongfu (kung fu) in the traditional sense of achievement through great effort. The two words are combined to describe systems to cultivate and balance life energy, especially for health.
Qi Gong is about tuning in to how you feel and what your body needs. It is not simply about breathing and movement (whether internal or external). Not only does it develop stamina, flexibility, strong bones, muscles and sinews, and promote a good sense of balance, practitioners also become aware of their spiritual and emotional needs.
Qi Gong is a lifestyle choice. Regular practice develops a connection to one’s body and to nature, something that most of us have lost. And by being fully present and mentally absorbed in our exercise and our breathing, we can become emotionally centered, with a clear and open mind.
If you would like to know anything more about what I do, or indeed the discussion above, you are welcome to contact me via the email or telephone details below..