How much exercise should I do? Do you want to keep healthy but feel confused by all the different advice that doctors give you? Chinese medical advice is based on three principles: ‘moderation in all things’, ‘we are all different’ and ‘listen to your body’. The right amount and type of exercise will help to keep your Qi (vital energy) flowing so that your body and mind function well and your spirit is strong and peaceful. The Chinese medical classics, written around 2000 years ago, stress the importance of ‘self-cultivation’ and encourage exercising the mind as well as the body. It is only our recent concern with preventing dementia that has brought us back to that understanding.
‘Moderation in all things’ means that I am concerned about people taking too much exercise as well as them taking too little. Regular gentle exercise is good for everyone. It helps to keep our Qi and blood flowing round our body, bringing nutrients and energy to all our tissues and clearing away unwanted substances. Stuck or stagnant Qi makes us susceptible to bodily pain (in muscles, joints, bowels etc), to unclear thinking, and to feeling stuck emotionally (in sadness, resentment, anxiety etc). However, excessive exercise or physical work, weakens our Qi and blood and can exacerbate fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, fertility problems and also lowers our resistance to infections. Similarly with mental exertion – keeping our minds stimulated and active is important but intensive mental work without regular breaks weakens our Qi and our energy reserves.
‘We are all different’ – each of us will benefit from different levels and types of exercise and this will vary at different times in our lives. Some people have constitutions that need vigorous exercise like running, gym workouts or dancing to keep their Qi flowing, whereas others feel better with gentler sustained exercise such as walking, gardening or yoga. Chinese medicine encourages us to live in balance with the seasons, so that we should be more active in the Spring and more restful in the Winter. We should also adjust our activity according to our age and to our general state of health. Mind-body practices, such as Qi Gong and Tai Chi are an integral part of Chinese Medicine and have the advantage of being suitable for everyone and cultivating both the body and the mind.
As an acupuncturist I am able to give patients individualised advice that is based on my assessment of their constitution, the state of their Qi and blood, and the balance of Yin and Yang. In addition, I advise everyone to ‘listen to your body’. Once we learn to do this we ourselves can work out how best to exercise our body and mind and adjust that appropriately. For example, I have patients who know the best way to get rid of stress and anxiety is to go for a brisk walk and others who recognise that a headache is a sign that they need to stop work and relax. Often it is easier to act on this knowledge if we share it with others – arranging to go for a swim with a friend, or enlisting a partner to help you sit down and stop working. As for keeping our minds active, learning a new craft or area of knowledge is effective and enjoyable. I certainly found that was the case when I studied Chinese medicine and acupuncture – it made my brain ache initially but it continues to fascinate and impress me!