As a therapist, clients often ask me what exercise should they do? The higher order answer is one that is fun, because if it isn’t enjoyable, it will only be a matter of time before it is abandoned. If it is fun, one will want to go; having fun is being in the moment, a place where whatever worries and problems we have are temporarily forgotten about and that’s a space we all seeking. So doing something beneficial whilst in that space is a great combination. Now whilst being fun is crucial, it also needs to be appropriate for where we are currently at in life and I’ll talk more about that later.
An underlying principle of oriental philosophy is the concept of balance, an ideal place where everything operates in harmony with all the other parts of our being. The human organism is a dynamic ever-moving entity, breathing in and breathing out, the movement of the organs, the fascia the muscles. Balance implies a static state where two sides are even, so as humans we are eternally seeking a point we will never achieve. I often say “balance is something we pass by every now and again”, and what we need to work towards instead is staying in as narrow a band or zone around that point.
In order find and live in that ‘balanced zone’ there are many levels of self-care that we need to address; We need to nurture our physical health and wellbeing, we need to be addressing our mental and emotional health, our relationships with ourself and others, and also some form of spiritual practice that connects us to a higher purpose for our existence. Exercises crosses over a number of those areas; primarily we are seeking to create a strong and efficient body. Yet in doing so, we ‘feel good’ about ourselves, we get in touch with the subtle message our body gives on our life processes, and we gain some connection and clarity as to who we are and how we express ourself in the world. When we have a good regime of attending to our physical wellbeing we are more likely to choose better foods as fuel to an efficient system so we get into a ‘positive spiral’, one that connects upward to that higher purpose.
Within the realm of exercise, there is also a concept of balance, and in my mind there are five components to that; Strength exercise, Flexibility exercise, Cardiovascular exercise, Resting time and finally Meditative exercise. So in a place of good health and balance we will seek to undertake equal amounts of each of those as a balanced ‘exercise’ component of a self-care program.
Strength exercise creates toned and strong muscles that have the power to fully undertake daily tasks and perhaps most importantly resist the forces of gravity to hold us up straight and upright in the best possible place to face the world ahead. People can become obsessed with building muscle, often to the detriment of the other elements.
Flexibility exercises create a soft elastic connection for the most efficient use of the power of the muscle. It gives us the ability to feel free and easy in our body, an ability to change direction in the most efficient and effective manner.
Cardiovascular exercise is creating the most efficient system to provide the muscles with the ‘fuel’ they need for their power; like a high performance engine. Much has been written and researched into the benefits of both elements of cardiovascular exercise; aerobic and anaerobic.
Rest time is not often considered as important in the exercise question, yet it is as equally as important as the other components. Resting is akin to keeping your car serviced; ensuring everything is regularly checked over for any signs of wear and tear that can be addressed before they break in action. During rest, the nervous system ‘switches’ from the external ‘fight-flight’ sympathetic nervous system to the internal parasympathetic nervous system. The energy is diverted into the internal organs to resolve the build up of stress that has accumulated from the time being in action. We need to ensure that we are getting quality rest; often we take this for granted.
Sleep is our primary means and in the Chinese clock (each energy and organ governs a two-hour time band throughout the 24 hours) we ideally are asleep by 9.30pm and waking at 5am to exercise and ‘let go’ of the stresses of the day before we start the new one. Often in a device driven world, people are staying up too late and into the zone of ‘planning and decision making’ from 11pm-1am where the mind gets active, making it hard to sleep but great for getting things done! Over time this means our resting time is cut short putting the system under stress. We do infinitely better by taking our problems to bed to wake up with the solutions, which invariably come in our morning exercise practice.
Meditative practice is in many ways part of the resting in that it ‘switches’ the nervous system, yet it differs in that it is connecting us to ourselves and to our higher purpose or meaning in life. In order to move forward, we need to know where we are going otherwise we can just go around and around in circles. Many of us already meditate without knowing we are doing it! Often we have the construct of meditation in our mind of sitting crossed legged on the floor in silence. Yet for me meditation is about disconnecting from the thoughts that constantly stream through our mind; they cannot be stopped, but we can acknowledge they are there and become an observer. Often we all have those times of quiet we seek where we find that place; for me it is walking the dog in the forest. Others have their favourite place to go and sit, some find it in doing the dishes or listening to music.
So we have five areas that need attention, and I believe that we don’t need an equal amount of time for all the components, rather an appropriate amount of attention or focus. Ideally we seek to incorporate larger amounts of time into resting and meditative practices in our normal daily (and nightly) routines, whereas we need to set aside more structured time for strength, flexibility and cardiovascular exercise. In our world we often ‘buy’ those skills from a gym, a personal trainer, classes and workshops. This is the first step to developing and taking charge of your own program; ultimately you will have the skills and empowerment to choose what, when and how much, as ultimately your body talks to you, not anyone else. You need to take charge.
The reality of being human is that we are on a wonderful rollercoaster of life that throws up a multitude of challenges over its course. Our ki (energy) has a cyclical nature as we move through the different stages of life – we need different things in different phases and we generally we need to focus much more, if not exclusively, upon one area in order to get us back to place where we can start to incorporate the others.
A common problem that is a consequence of our modern lifestyle, is adrenal exhaustion; people are overstimulated by longer working hours and computer/device time and unable to deeply switch off. In fact many people nowadays cannot switch their phones off at night and have them right next to themselves which is an interesting analogy of our modern world. Given this scenario, rest and mediation exercises are the first steps to take; strength and cardiovascular exercise often uses energy that they simply don’t have, further exacerbating the problem. In my experience it is a common scenario and people don’t understand why the gym isn’t giving them the zest and energy they are seeking.
As I have indicated, we have to start by creating a solid energetic foundation; more produced than we expend – a simple equation. Exercise such as Tai chi and Qigong and some forms of yoga (like yin yoga) work on building the energetic strength and are applicable through any life phase; adolescence, adulthood and old age. For women there are other distinctions along the way primarily around child-birth and the menopause, which are pre-birth, post-birth, peri-menopause and post menopause that make their needs more refined depending when they are at on the continuum. There are resting poses in yoga and other modalities that are about switching the nervous system into the rest and recharge mode. Once we have a good energetic foundation, then incorporating strength, cardiovascular and flexibility exercises enable us to reach closer for that point of balance in creating a strong and vibrant physical body.
The last factor is our constitution; there are challenges we bring into this world and for some there may always be a need to focus say more on cardiovascular exercise to keep the lungs and circulation at an optimum. For others they may need more flexibility exercises for instance.
Si in summary we need to seek a balance in the types of exercise we undertake to ensure all aspects of our physical body are operating at its best; we need to adjust that according to our life stage, our current condition and to constitutional challenges.
Lastly rest and time ‘switched off’ is perhaps the most important part, the foundational aspect from which all else can build. Good complementary therapists will help you determine where you sit on the scale and support you in finding exactly what is right for you.