It seems like the zeitgeist of our times is defined by extremes, from politics to weather, and even exercise.
Consider kidney-damaging CrossFit classes.1
And warrior-training programs for masochists willing to shell out lots of money to be tortured like a Navy Seal during Hell Week….2
There’s the lethal Tough Mudders.3
And, of course, the old standbys of elite endurance—marathons and triathlons.
Extremism in the form of exercise is embedded in the American fabric.
And let’s not forget electrolyte-depleting hot yoga classes, in which the room is heated to 105 degrees.
But is bigger, faster, stronger (as well as hotter and sweatier) a paradigm for optimal health?
What does traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) consider the best workout routine?
Not too surprisingly, the TCM philosophy on exercise is no different than any aspect of life.
And that is: moderation is best; exercise should promote harmony between Yin and Yang energies.
That’s great news if you don’t particularly like going to the gym. Or being drenched in sweat in a yoga class that feels like a tropical jungle.
Best Workout Routine: Why More Isn’t Better
It’s human nature to explore new worlds and scale the highest peaks. And it’s also human nature to want to be the strongest, fastest and fittest.
Too little exercise is just as bad as working out too much and too hard
But is being super fit the same as super healthy? In the U.S., many workouts tend to focus on fitness, not wellness. And the two are not the same.
In fact, an article in The New Yorker on the cardiovascular effect of extreme exercise suggests the following:
“The risk of atrial fibrillation for extreme athletes may be increased five fold when compared to sedentary people.”4
Now that’s not to say that if lead a mostly sedentary life, you’ll be healthy. Clearly, too little exercise is just as bad, if not worse than, working out too much and too hard.
Here’s why TCM doesn’t think very high intensity exercise is the best workout routine.
Extreme forms of exercise are a manifestation of excessive Yang.
Yang traits include being competitive and ambitious. These attributes have benefited humankind in many ways. Think of inventions and technology that have made life easier.
However, if there’s not sufficient Yin energy to balance out the Yang competitive fire, “Yang will send us up in a burst of flames.”
(Without doubt, some people who have taken a hot yoga class for the first time may feel like their head is going to spontaneously combust.)
Best Workout Routine for True Wellness
The only goal of exercise for true wellness, according to TCM philosophy, is promoting the flow of both Qi and Blood.
When Qi and Blood flow smoothly, deficiency and stagnation are prevented. If you have Qi deficiency, your breath will be labored walking up a flight of stairs.
Boost Energy Without Stimulants
That’s why it’s important to have some baseline level of fitness. You need sufficient Qi to make it up the steps with relative ease. If you sit all day, you’ll have Blood stagnation and your organs won’t function optimally.
However, the best workout routine shouldn’t push your Yin-Yang balance further out of whack.
Because many people believe that being incredibly fit is synonymous with health (like an American Ninja Warrior), they burn up more Yang energy.
In natural health circles, the term “adrenal fatigue” has become trendy. This isn’t a medically-recognized diagnosis.
Nonetheless, it’s quite possible that leading a type-A lifestyle coupled with a type-A exercise program will indeed end up burning you out.
And looking through adrenal exhaustion through the prism of TCM, there is a parallel. The adrenal glands, which release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, are located on top of the kidneys.
The Kidney organ system in TCM, stores Jing, which is akin to your essence. Too much stress, such as extreme exercise, depletes the body of Jing.
And with Jing depletion comes exhaustion. (Or dead, if you’re an endurance runner5.)
This is why the best workout routine includes traditional Chinese exercises such as Tai Chi and Qigong.
Although they appear easy and mellow, their benefits for longevity and health are well documented.
The reason why is Tai Chi and Qigong are very efficient at building and balancing Qi energy and preventing Blood stagnation.
TCM Philosophy on Exercise: No Sweat!
In western physiology, the heart is a muscle that pumps blood. But in TCM theory, the Heart organ system also controls your body’s fluids, including sweat. In fact, in TCM, sweat is the primary fluid of the Heart.
Therefore, all those hot yoga classes and other sweaty activities can cause deficient Heart Qi.
Perhaps one of the reasons why some marathon runners are at greater risk for cardiac problems is they sweat too much….
Even though long-distance runners have elite cardiovascular fitness, in essence, running a marathon (especially in hot weather) creates Qi deficiency of the Heart.
And when the Heart organ system doesn’t have adequate Qi, other organ systems will show dysfunction.
Moreover, strenuous exercise can also tax your tendons and ligaments. That’s both a conclusion of western and eastern philosophy.
The reasons why are different.
In the western paradigm of exercise, all that pounding eventually wears out the cushions of the joints.
In comparison, in TCM theory, the Liver stores Blood. And your tendons and ligaments depend on getting enough blood from the Liver for nourishment.
Thus, when Liver is stressed, it needs to produce more blood to nourish tendons and ligaments. Consequently, Liver Qi depletes.
Best Workout Routine: Conclusion
Your Qi is precious. Sure, if it gets depleted, you may be able to build it back up. But in our hectic world, nourishing Qi can be challenging.
Especially if you don’t have the perfect diet and don’t manage your stress.
Unless you can afford the time and money to take a 10-day silent yoga/meditation retreat, it may prove difficult to replenish Jing and Qi.
And even if you do manage to “Zen it out” for a week or so on vacation, what’s going to happen when you have to go back to work and resume your hectic life?
In light of this, meditative movement exercises such as yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong may prove to be the best workout routine.
They contribute more to overall health than high-intensity exercise.
Going for long walks at a brisk pace may also be better for your health than very high intensity exercise.
Now, doesn’t that make you feel less stressed out hearing that you don’t need to train like an Olympic athlete to attain longevity and total wellness?
1: Huffington Post: CrossFit’s Dirty Little Secret
3: NY Post: Seizures, electrocution and death: has tough mudder gone too far?
4,5: New Yorker.com: Extreme exercise and the heart