Movement for health
In my view the key to good health and longevity, whether that’s via diet, exercise or any other aspect of lifestyle, is to know what’s appropriate at any given moment; in this article I hope to give some pointers in that direction, relating particularly to exercise.
A few ground rules that I use when considering what’s appropriate:
Know yourself and your limits
Know when to rest
Know when and how to exercise
Regard everything you do as an investment
Choosing the right investments for your energy is key to a healthy mind and body
You get out what you put in
If whatever you do, you do it gently, you can’t go far wrong
How can you know your limit?
Your body will tell you via pain, tightness, tiredness or weakness. Signs you’re reaching limits can build up over time; when they first arrive they might be minor inconveniences, but are still worth listening to.
When you become aware of pain, tightness, tiredness or weakness, it’s a sign that you need to either do something lower impact, or just rest and recuperate. The same applies to stress. If you go beyond your limits, you will reduce your capacity until you have healed – reducing your overall energy and your ability to realise other goals during that healing period.
We are all different; you have to therefore remain sensitive to your own capacity, and not be distracted by a competitive mindset.
How should I exercise?
Muscles and tendons are made from fibres and act much like elastic bands: within their limits of movement they retain their elasticity, but too much of a stretch or weight causes strains.
When I use massage in treatment, I recognise tightness in muscles by how defined they are. There are two extremes: flaccidity, or no muscle tone, and rigidity, or excess muscle tone. All of us are on this spectrum and as with most things, the ideal is somewhere between the two.
The best exercise for you stays in your middle ground, exercising muscles without reaching extremes and causing strain, prompting signs of your limits.
When should I exercise?
The easiest way to decide is in my view to do a quick assessment of your energy levels. If you feel tired, rest. If you feel energetic, move! If you feel stagnant, move!
Many of us spend a lot of our time at a desk staring at a computer screen; if that’s the case for you, or you experience some stress at work, you may sometimes feel a bit mentally or physically stagnant and achy. In that situation, you will probably benefit from movement, in whatever form that takes.
If on the other hand you feel drained, exercise may feel like it helps temporarily by getting everything moving, but if it’s too intense, there’s always the possibility that you could deplete yourself further. If you exercise sensitively (within your limits) there’s less of a chance of this.
Building capacity, investing in health
Our bodies heal and build into old age; gentle use can therefore still build capacity.
If you want to increase something you have to invest in it; if you want to be a good chess player or violinist there is no replacement for practice; if you want to build muscles, you have to use them; if you want to develop flexibility you have to loosen your joints. However, how you do this is key. In my view, the only way to increase strength or a skill level sustainably is to practice regularly, with sensitivity, and gradually build up.
What is gentleness in relation to exercise?
Gentleness for me implies remaining soft, flexible, smooth and integrated in movement, and in how you apply yourself to an exercise regime. Any focus like this is an anchor for the mind, and can improve awareness generally. The physical effect is to soften hardness (tight muscles) and improve flexibility and circulation. This can of course take time, depending on how tight you are, and any other contributory habits you may have acquired (see earlier blog entry, 'Eating for health'); however with persistence its benefits are long-lasting.
Adopting this attitude does not mean that you never have to work with pain again, although it ought to occur less and in different ways. When you do experience pain the same attitude will make the experience more bearable and allow you to heal more quickly.
There is plenty of evidence for the importance of exercise in mitigating all sorts of health risks. Here are a few links to online research and recommendations from national bodies in the UK and US, which give details of the many benefits to even light exercise:
Evidence for the health benefits of physical activity, from the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health:
Some good simple exercise recommendations from the US National Library of Medicine:
Exercise recommendations from the NHS:
Exercise recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Eating for health
It can be hard sometimes to know what, how much and when to eat. There is a huge variety of advice available, and new research often seems to contradict previous recommendations. On top of this we have our own habits and preferences acquired over years. Even if one is being mindful, it can be hard to see through habits, to feel that you don’t need to eat that last morsel, or have that extra piece of cake.
So how can we know what is appropriate? Here are a few ideas about optimum nutrition you can mix and match, in order to feel your way around what’s best for you.
Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper
My view is that this is the best way to eat for digestive health. Eating provides energy for activity, and most of us are active during the day, so need to have calories available during that time. It makes sense therefore to eat a decent breakfast, to charge your battery. If you are not hungry in the morning, my view is it is probably because your body is still encumbered with the previous evening’s meal.
The Chinese body clock tells us when different organs are at maximum and minimum levels of activity. Our body’s digestive organs are all at their maximum early morning through to early afternoon; the stomach is at its minimum level of activity already by 7pm. In sleep our body wants to be able to carry out other processes such as tidying, sorting and healing, and eating can get in the way of that, especially eating heavy meals; in my view this is one of the main reasons people need to disrupt their sleep to relieve themselves at night. My advice then is simple: for optimum digestion and sleep, get the bulk of your calories at breakfast and lunch, and eat more sparingly as the day goes on.
Leave some space!
This means simply eating within our stomach’s limits, for example to ¾ full.
What we can easily digest is limited physically by the size of our stomach. If we eat more than our stomach can comfortably hold, that is, if we eat to the point where our stomach feels physically full, we will likely also cause problems further down the digestive tract. Often your sense of how full you are is catching up with your eating, and given a short break after a meal you will feel full even if you still didn’t while you were eating.
Some of us have difficulty digesting specific foodstuffs, and for those people the sense of fullness could very quickly become bloating when those foods are consumed. This is still a message worth listening to. There are many ways of eating healthily, and usually ways to work around a dietary intolerance or allergy, in terms of getting appropriate nutrition.
In the short term overeating could mean you don’t digest the food well, leading to fatigue or discomfort. It could also lead to for example constipation, bloating, or heartburn.
Of course if you have physical work you will need to consume more calories, and however you eat you need to make sure you’re getting a variety and plenty of fresh vegetables and greens.
Avoid foods too laden with strong flavours or sugar, fats or salt
Strong flavours act similarly to stimulants and can cloud our perceptions of whether we are full or empty. The most common examples of highly refined food products are salt, sugar, fats and spices. We all have slightly different constitutional balances, and some of these things are better for some of us and worse for others. You probably have a preference for those things that you find beneficial already, but it’s worth making sure that you get variety in your diet, and being wary of overusing any highly refined foodstuffs.
Mindful eating practices
Generally practising mindfulness initially means stopping and observing the various movements of body and mind that continue when you bring yourself to physical stillness. Over time and with practice your sense of stillness and awareness increase and it becomes easier to be aware of the activity of the mind while you’re also physically active. A few ways you can be more mindful when you are eating are to:
- Pause and take a few conscious breaths before eating
- Eat without distractions (without for example also watching a screen, or reading a newspaper at the same time)
- Eat slowly and chew well; this will also enable you to get the most out of eating less
Being mindful when you eat can develop your awareness of when you’re full, and what types of food best suit you.
Research suggests a couple of further points which I think are worth bearing in mind
I can't put it better than the quotes below, which are from abstracts available on the website PubMed, which publishes medical research as part of the US National Library of Medicine.
“A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention and is consistent with the salient components of seemingly distinct dietary approaches” (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24641555)
“A large body of evidence supports the utility of healthy dietary patterns that emphasize whole-grain foods, legumes, vegetables, and fruits, and that limit refined starches, red meat, full-fat dairy products, and foods and beverages high in added sugars... Diet, of course, is just one approach to preventing illness. Limiting caloric intake to maintain a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and not smoking are three other essential strategies”.
I have presented a few ideas that have been important to me in finding a healthy balance between diet, exercise and sleep. Please also read my article 'Movement for health' for my take on how to exercise. It's worth remembering that with vision and understanding there’s a lot we can do to help ourselves; I hope that some of these ideas provide useful food for thought.
Happy Chinese New Year
Like many things Chinese, new year celebrations and rituals date back thousands of years. Here are a couple of links to sites that explain something about Chinese new year and the origins of some new year traditions:
Chinese new year: history and traditions
Chinese new year: more history and traditions
Spring and the Wood element
Everything goes through phases of growth, fruition, maturity, decline and completion; Spring is naturally the growth phase of our annual cycle. This is a time of year for movement after the stillness of winter, and the natural world manifests and promotes that in us in numerous ways.
Spring is associated with the appearance of new buds of growth, and the return of green leaves. We can see the power of this energy in the way plants can push through concrete to reach the sun. Growth and energy is part of our lives too, and in balance we respond to the awakening of the outer world ourselves with extra energy, activity and creativity.
Organ: liver and gall bladder
The liver is responsible for the movement of qi in the body. It is a very large and busy organ and anything that demands its time will divert resources from this movement, potentially leading to the emotions associated in Chinese medicine with liver imbalance: frustration, anger, or depression. The liver has an effect on a large number of physical processes and as a result you can affect the liver’s ability to move qi and store the blood in a number of ways, but the two most obvious are excessive alcohol or intoxicants and immoderation in eating.
Body part: Tendons and sinews
The liver is said to store the blood, and to be responsible for keeping the tendons and sinews soft and pliant. If you suffer from tightness you might therefore consider being kind to your liver and being moderate in eating and drinking, minimising alcohol and stimulants and not eating too late. Eating earlier will allow you to sleep more deeply and also permit the liver to function optimally at its most active time, 1-3am.
Emotion: anger, determination
Action: imagining, planning
Spring is a time of year to imagine what may come, and plan as best we can. In ancient Daoist thought it is the spirits that relate to the liver which are active when we dream. In the waking world, dreams and imagination are a precursor to planning, organising and setting your direction for the year. Without consciously planning and imagining, we can find ourselves being dragged along; frustration and anger can result. Take some time this spring to consider what’s to come, what your goals are, and how you can best move towards them, making each step conscious. Flexibility is always required, and you can review and change as the year goes on; but this initial step will help to point you in your desired direction.
Here are a few ways you can be kind to your wood element and liver this spring:
-Be moderate in eating and drinking, eat a variety of foodstuffs, and avoid eating late.
-Avoid eating whilst watching television, or when you are experiencing strong emotions, particularly anger.
-Minimise stimulants, especially later in the day.
-Exercise in a way that creates a healthy flow rather than an intense stop-start; tai chi and yoga are ideal ways of learning this kind of movement.
-Get involved in creative activities: art, music, or movement according to your preference; express emotion healthily rather than holding it in.
-Take some time to consider what your goals are this year, in the longer term, and how you can move in that direction. Be flexible with yourself and your goals, and remember to be aware of both opportunities and difficulties in planning.
All of the elements are all present all year round, but become more pronounced at their associated time of year. For example, migraines, dry eyes or irritable bowel symptoms can all point to a liver-related diagnosis in Chinese medicine and any of these conditions starting or worsening in spring points the finger even more strongly to an imbalance in the liver and gall bladder and their associated meridians. However these problems can happen all year round, and if they do you might find following a few of the above recommendations can provide some relief, whatever the time of year.
Hayfever and allergies
Spring and Summer are the time of year for heightened hayfever and allergy symptoms such as itchy eyes and congested nose. I have methods of treating these symptoms pre-season if you are not yet experiencing them, or of relieving them if they have already started. Treatment involves a combination of acupuncture and massage, and lifestyle advice.
There are a number of things you can do for yourself. I have learned from experience the things that affect my hayfever, and how. Some common stimulants and foodstuffs often have a detrimental effect if you suffer from allergies. I have listed some of the most common below:
Coffee: I would expect this to exacerbate eye symptoms, dryness, itchiness, redness, soreness. I would expect decaf coffee to have less pronounced effects, but possibly still cause some discomfort, depending on your personal tolerance.
Beer: This will primarily add to symptoms of congestion and lack of concentration (and not just while drinking it!)
Wine and spirits: These are similar to coffee, in that they can contribute to signs of heat and redness, and can also affect sleep.
Dairy and fried, fatty foods: Dairy products may add to a sense of congestion for some, as can fatty and deep-fried foods.
Sweets: Sugary foods can also contribute to a general sense of congestion.
You can benefit all-round by:
1) Getting your sugars from whole grains and vegetables rather than topping up with sugary snacks or crisps
2) Staying well hydrated
3) Eating a healthy breakfast
4) Not eating too much, too late
5) Doing some moderate, daily exercise
Tea is usually helpful for congestion, drunk without milk. This does not have to be green tea, black tea can also be helpful.
Please get in touch if you have any questions about any issues I raise in my recommendations. I will always do my best to explain things as clearly as I can.
I hope you have an allergy-free Summer.
What are the 'channels' in Chinese medicine?
Ancient Chinese doctors had no modern technology, so developed simple techniques to read what was happening inside the body via external changes, such as changes in the pulse, skin, muscles, temperature, emotions and so on. They noticed how changes in each organ affect certain external areas more strongly than others, and mapped these channels across the whole body. This understanding was developed until the channels connected the whole body in a flowing circulatory network, linking the internal organs to the external tissues and limbs; this is the channel network that we use in traditional acupuncture and tui na massage.
Early doctors used the analogy of wells, streams, rivers, lakes and seas for many of the important acupuncture points, each having a different quality and use in treatment. This idea of flow is intrinsic to health and balance in Chinese medicine.
Much as we are often not aware of being well, but are all too aware of the state of illness, channels only tend to become significant in imbalance; for example, stagnation might show up as bumpiness, cold or heat, but if there is no imbalance the channel will likely not be apparent.
Chinese medicine practitioners can use clues like changes in colour, texture, heat or cold in channels to gain an understanding of internal and external physiological processes, and how they are interacting. We can use the same channels to alter any imbalances in the flow via acupuncture, massage or recommending exercises, encouraging flow towards tissues that feel undersupplied, or away from an area of excess.
Because of the way the channels connect the body, it is possible for example to use acupuncture points in the legs and arms to have an effect on the whole body, or in the hands or feet to affect the head. Traditional practitioners often use points that are not solely in the area of any pain you might be experiencing. This is because of the understanding of the channels connecting your whole body.
When a Chinese medicine practitioner meets a patient we can often see the strongest elements, via the sound of someone's voice, their emotions, body shape, whether someone is boisterous or subdued and so on; everything is a clue to possible imbalance. The principles of yin and yang and the five elements are apparent in everything we do. They are a way of seeing reflections of the natural world within; our channels, our internal organs, the way we manifest in the world; these are all mirrors of the world and the part we have chosen in it. With the right understanding, they can all become part of healing any imbalances from within or from without.