Exercise & Stretching
by Bob Flaws
The Nei Jing states, "Prolonged sitting damages the flesh" and "Prolonged lying damages the qi." For not less than 2,000 years Chinese doctors have believed that lack of adequate physical exercise leads to disease. As a modern Chinese acupuncture text says, "Lack of physical exercise can impair the circulation of qi and blood, weaken the function of the spleen and stomach, and sap body resistance." When we exercise, the rhythmic contraction and release of our muscles, the increased pumping of our heart, and the expansion and contraction of our lungs all promote the flow and circulation of qi, blood, and body fluids. This increased circulation of qi results in the upbearing of the clear and downbearing of the turbid. In Chinese medical terms, this implies that digestion is improved. When digestion is improved, qi and blood production also improves. And abundant qi and blood result in increased immunity to disease.
In developed countries, due to sedentary lifestyle and labor-saving devices, many people do not get enough physical exercise. Because many people in such countries also suffer from increased job and lifestyle stress, this lack of adequate exercise is doubly harmful. The manifestations of inadequate exercise are softening of the bones and tendons, lack of energy, poor appetite, lassitude, obesity, and shortness of breath on exertion. Psychologically, lack of exercise also exacerbates anxiety, irritability, and depression. Although much of the Chinese longevity literature seems to emphasize not overworking and overtaxing oneself, Chinese longevity experts have also recommended avoiding excessive comfort. Lu Jiu-zhi of the Qing dynasty, in his Yi Bing Lun (Treatise on Leisure Diseases) pointed out that, "Ordinary people are often told of diseases from overtaxation but have no knowledge of diseases due to excessive leisure; the latter, however, are more harmful." Liu goes on to say,
If ordinary people remain idle and unoccupied, this leads to disease. If minor labor returns one's strength, if their disease improves when occupied by affairs and when busy they can forget their disease, if they feel fatigued after meals or fatigued after sleep, this is leisure disease.
Essentially, humans need regular physical exercise. However, that exercise should be moderate, not too much and not too little. Too much and qi and blood are consumed in excess. Too little and qi and blood are not produced and do not circulate. The famous Han dynasty doctor, Hua Tuo, said,
The human body desires work and movement, but one should not exert themself to the extreme. Movement of the body leads to grain qi being completely dispersed. The blood vessels flow freely. And disease cannot arise. This is like a (leather) door hinge which never becomes rotten.
In the Tang Dynasty, Sun Si-miao reiterated this same teaching, "The body desires labor, but one should never labor to extreme." Because one's strength, energy, and condition vary from day to day, season to season, and from age to age, this means that one should also regulate their exercise to meet their own particular needs. When one is young and in the prime of their life, doing strenuous physical exercises is appropriate. However, as one ages, one's exercise can and should become milder and less strenuous. Exercise which results in a person feeling exhausted afterwards is too much.
For the purposes of this discussion, there are five kinds of exercise:
Doing Chores by Hand
Physical exercise which is a part of living one's life refers to the walking, moving, and lifting inherent in just moving through one's daily schedule. In undeveloped countries, daily life for most people is made up of a series of physical tasks. One typically must walk everywhere. Stairs need to be climbed. Water needs to be carried or pumped. Wood or brush needs to be carried for fuel. Dishes and clothes need to be washed by hand. The garden needs to turned, planted, weeded, and harvested. One's house needs to be cleaned.
In rich, Western countries, many of these simple physical tasks have been replaced by machines and appliances. In such countries, one of the easiest ways of getting adequate exercise is to forego the use of one's car, elevator, and other mechanical conveniences and chose instead to do these things manually or by one's own body. Instead of driving everywhere, sometimes one should walk or ride their bicycle. Instead of taking the elevator, one should walk up the stairs. This kind of exercise is relatively easy to do since it is purposeful and uncontrived.
Some people just cannot find the time to walk to work or get their exercise entirely by doing manual chores during their daily schedule. In that case, it is necessary to set time aside to deliberately exercise. There are three types of exercise a person should do in order to stay healthy. The first of these is aerobic exercise. This means doing something fast enough and repetitive enough to get one's heart beating 80% faster than normal. This means that if one's normal resting pulse is 72 beats per minute, one's aerobic rate should be at least 128 beats per minute. Once one's rate is up to that point, one then needs to keep it there for a continuous 20 minutes.
This can be accomplished by fast walking, jogging, riding a bicycle, swimming, playing basketball, or any of a number of other methods of exertion. The exact method is not that important as long as one's heart beat is raised and one keeps that rate up for 20 minutes to a half hour. The important thing other than that is that whatever method of exercise one chooses should not cause any damage to any part of the body. Since many types of aerobic exercise consist of doing the same movements over and over again repetitively, if those movements are even just a little bit damaging to the joints and tendons, a host of small injuries may accumulate to result in a large problem. Therefore, one should chose an aerobic activity which will not result in cumulative stress injuries, or one should vary the type of aerobic activity so as not to always stress the same body parts.
Aerobic exercise results in circulating the qi, blood, and body fluids. It strengthens the heart and lungs and reduces the negative effects of stress and emotional strain. Young and middle-aged people should do some kind of aerobic activity at least three times per week.
Resistance training refers to lifting or pushing against something heavy or difficult to move. Resistance training builds physical strength. It also converts fat into muscle. Muscle burns more calories than does adipose or fatty tissue. When one reaches 40 years of age, one's metabolism naturally slows down with the decline of organ functions. Practically speaking, this results in gaining approximately 10 pounds every decade after that age unless one takes preventive steps. After 40, one will gain weight even if one eats the same amounts and kinds of foods and gets the same amount of exercise they did before that age. In other words, in order to counteract this process, one has to do more than they did before.
Lifting weights, doing push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups, or using any of the numerous types of resistance training machines on the market can help convert fatty tissue into muscle. Not only will this result in a slimmer, trimmer body, but one will also feel mentally and emotionally good about their renewed physical strength. They will feel strong and robust and young. The old saying goes, "Nothing succeeds like success." If, through resistance training, one becomes pleased by their youthful body in comparison to others their same age who have not taken such good care, this healthy pride and positive self-image can help develop more joie de vivre and with that a longer, healthier life.
When doing resistance training, one should exercise all major muscle groups. One should not try to build huge muscles but rather concentrate on toning and firming what they have. This usually means lighter weights or less resistance and more repetitions. Resistance training can be done three or more times per week but should be done at least twice a week. Besides the benefits mentioned above, resistance training also results in stronger bones and tendons.
In the Huai Nan Zi, a compilation of philosophical treatises commissioned by Prince Huai Nan in the 2nd century BC, it says: "A pure spirit, emotions in equilibrium, and relaxation of all the joints are basic for the sustenance of one's essential nature." In Chinese medicine, the joints are seen as areas where there is a special concentration of qi and blood. From the traditional Chinese point of view, this is why movement occurs at the joints. These are the places where the sinews attach to the bones and where the channels and connecting vessels flow close to the skin, sandwiched closely between both. Although the joints are places where the qi and blood should flow most freely, in fact, they are places where the qi and blood can become easily stuck or stagnant.
Stretching exercises help to loosen the joints and promote the free flow of qi and blood over the channels and connecting vessels. They strengthen the tendons and ligaments and also indirectly strengthen the bones. Further, stretching exercises help promote mental and physical relaxation.
Stretching exercises are easiest to do in the late afternoon or early evening and are hardest to do in the early morning when one first wakes up. However, doing stretching exercises in the morning helps to free the flow of qi and blood which has become sluggish overnight. When doing stretching exercises, it is important to relax into each stretch. One should work with their breath, relaxing further with each exhalation. One should not try to stretch by bouncing into a stretch, nor should they force themselves to stretch too far too fast. Rather, one should stretch little by little, day by day, making haste slowly.
Many systems of Chinese martial arts teach stretching exercises. However, one does not have to take a class at their local kung fu studio to learn how to stretch. The most important stretches are to flex and extend the spine, to adduct the spine, and to rotate the spine. Also, one should stretch out the backs of the legs which tend to be tight. One can also stretch their legs apart as if attempting a split. For more information on stretching, the reader should see Bob Anderson's classic, Stretching. Stretching should be done on a daily basis in order to keep the body supple, the qi and blood flowing freely, and the mind relaxed.
The following chapter is devoted to the fifth type of exercise described in this book. Qi gong can mean many different things to different people. Many Chinese refer to almost all stretching exercises and calisthenics as qi gong. However, since the word itself means to train or discipline the qi, I differentiate it from stretching, calisthenics, and self-massage. As one ages, one does not need and indeed should not do the heavy exercise one was capable of as a young or middle-aged adult. Qi gong exercises are a way of getting moderate exercise without excessive strain. As middle age gives way to old age, it is probably better for most people to combine qi gong with stretching exercises and then to be sure they stay physically active in their daily routine.
Although one must moderate their exercise with advancing age, it is nonetheless important not to stop exercising. One of the characteristics of qi within the human body is movement. The body stops moving when the qi departs. But if one stops moving, one's qi will depart all the quicker.
This article is excerpted from Imperial Secrets of Health & Longevity by Bob Flaws, published by Blue Poppy Press. 1-800-487-9296 www.bluepoppy.com
Last changed 11/28/06
Copyright © 2006 Qigong Association of America