Chinese medicine and physical exercise

Lately, I’ve been considering any holes I can find in my Classical Chinese Medicine education here at NCNM. Amazingly, there aren’t many. It’s hard to put together a top notch program in any topic, much less one as complicated as Chinese medicine. One place I have found myself without much to go on is in understanding the role of physical exercise in health according to this medicine.

I’ve learned things here and there, both in class and in my own study, but the information is confusing and definitely conflicts with my own experience in places. In this article, I’d like to briefly discuss what I feel I have learned and the problems I’ve found therein. I hope that you will add your input in the comments. Some of what I write below will be in explicit TCM terms, as most of the docs I’ve talked to about this subject know that system best.

What I’ve learned about physical exercise since starting school in Chinese Medicine:

  • In general, vigorous exercise is not recommended. This is particularly the case when the exercise is productive of lots of sweat. The thought is that the discharge of so much sweat inevitably damages Heart Yang, given that Heart Yang is used to expel sweat from the pores. Instead, gentler forms such as Qigong, Taiji and sometimes Yoga are recommended. These are said to build the body from the inside in a way that does not damage any vital substance of the body.
  • Many of our doctors mention of how overwork can be very bad for the muscles and tendons and deplete both the Blood and the Qi. This is often mentioned mostly with relation to labor, but also non-working exercise. We are frequently asked to consider the lot of laboring people worldwide. They are often physically strong, but become ill easily and have shortened life.
  • Much of the negative information we get about exercise concerns specific habits. For instance, showering or soaking in water directly after being very sweaty (with open pores). It is said that this (common) practice pulls dampness into the body and creates conditions of damp and hot damp in the middle jiao. Lifting very heavy weights over long periods of time are widely regarded (by most medicine) to be difficult for the joints, tendons and even bones. Another commonly mentioned problem is the tendency for many weight lifters to be building a sort of “muscle shell” that only conceals a hollow interior. Their muscles are very strong, very impressive, but the person is ultimately weak on a number of levels.
  • There are often discussions about the importance of protecting the Heart. We often hear worry about making the Heart work so hard and wasting its precious Qi and Yang. Sometimes we will discuss various spiritual theories about the length of a person’s life being determined by a pre-determined number of heartbeats or breaths. I don’t think this information is regarded very seriously, we simply discuss it as something intriguing to consider.

I can understand much of this. For instance, it is certainly important that we don’t overwork ourselves. I see many people exercising in the name of health who seem to be making gains (losing weight, gaining muscle) but possibly at the expense of their longevity because of heavy wear on the joints and Heart. Further, the practice of being hot and sweaty and immediately going into the sauna or hot shower has always made me cringe a little.

On the other hand, we need to be mindful of the current state of most Americans. Another thing that we hear railed about at school is the danger of being overweight – leading a sedentary lifestyle. So, while exercising too much is certainly a bad thing and we can advise our patients to avoid it, we do need to help our overweight and out of shape patients! It seems that most Chinese medicine doctors would have us just eat a moderate diet, sleep well and do gentle movement in order to stay healthy.

This sounds fantastic, but it doesn’t seem to work for everyone.

It also makes one wonder what to do with a person who comes in already suffering from an overweight condition. Often overweight conditions are helped with dampness draining formulas and SP rectification, but again, this doesn’t seem to work for everyone. Some of the work seems to need to come from the person themselves.

Anciently, of course, most people were doing hard labor. In many of the Qigong forms we use, we visualize doing various kinds of labor (grinding the millstone, for instance). So, there is obviously some kind of recognition of the physical benefit of hard work. But, again, as explained above – it’s clear to anyone that too much hard physical labor is not great for a person.

I’m interested in this topic for two reasons.

First, I expect to have plenty of fitness-challenged patients walking through my door in just over a year’s time. I want to know how to talk to them in a way that makes sense, will help them understand a course of action and yet also be rooted in Classical Chinese Medical principles.

Second, as part of my revised Year of Sagely Living goal, I plan to engage in a program of focused physical exercise to help achieve a more optimal physique. Why do this? Well, by anyone’s measure I do need it and also I find that the process (exercise, focusing on what’s going on with my body) is very pleasurable and gives me lots of energy in a way that doesn’t feel at all jittery or strange.

I’m interested to hear others’ thoughts and experiences with this topic.

What have you learned? What have you rejected? Please comment!

About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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