Let’s face it, New Year resolutions about healthy living can be a bit predictable: ‘go to the gym every day’, ‘go back to Weight Watchers’, ‘relax more by meditating’. This is not surprising given that government, doctors and nurses generally give us standardised advice – a ‘one size fits all’ approach. In contrast, advice based on Chinese medicine is finely tuned to you as an individual and the circumstances of your life. In terms of exercise, for example, I would advise some patients to be more physically active and others to rest more, and the type of activity would vary from strenuous exertion to walking in the park and enjoying the natural world around them.
Acupuncture treatment is based on improving the strength and balance of our Qi (energy, life-force). To keep healthy we need to have sufficient Qi, it needs to be balanced across our different body and mind systems, and it needs to flow smoothly round every part of the body. There are many ways that you can support the treatment in terms of small changes to your lifestyle – so lots of opportunities for New Year resolutions! Advice on healthy living is central to Chinese medicine – in ancient texts the Chinese tradition of nourishing life is called ‘yangshen’. Once I have some understanding of the state and balance of your Qi we can discuss what might be feasible, and even enjoyable, for you to do. However, there is no hurry – you may need to start feeling better before you have the energy for change.
New Year resolutions about exercise are a good example of how we need to think about ourselves as individuals. You may be someone with a constitution that especially benefits from regular vigorous exercise and recognise that you can successfully work off stress and anger, low energy or some other health problems by going for a run or playing sport. Without exercise, your Qi may have a tendency to get stuck or not move smoothly and this leads to both emotional and physical symptoms such as pain, irritation and impatience. The reason you feel better with exercise is because it helps move your Qi round the body. However, excessive exertion weakens our Qi so you should avoid pushing yourself so hard when you are under other pressures – such as with other illness, pregnancy, lack of sleep etc. You may also find that your strong competitive spirit makes you are prone to sports injuries. Acupuncture can help the body heal from such injuries, but it is even better to avoid them!
Many people who come for acupuncture treatment need their Qi and energy strengthened, and in this situation exercise needs to be much more gentle and balanced with plenty of rest. Usually, being encouraged to listen to what our body is telling us will lead to us conserving and rebuilding Qi by gentle activities such as short walks, swimming, or yoga or Tai Chi. However, some people have a lot of ‘nervous energy’ and can be observed to be ‘running on empty’. In this situation we feel a compulsion to keep working and exercising at a fast pace, even though we feel tired and worn out. This is usually because our Qi is out of balance in terms of its Yin and Yang aspects. If we weaken our Yin energy, through long unbroken hours of stressful work for example, then our hot, fast agitated Yang energy is not balanced out by cooling, sustained and calm Yin energy. We act on the drive of racing Yang energy but what we need to do is to rebuild our Yin energy by rest and relaxing activities. Once our Qi is back in balance we can build up our physical strength and resilience.
You can read more about the tradition of yangshen in the book Live Well, Live Long by Peter Deadman.