I’m currently in week four of a nine week training program called Insanity—a name that I have learned over the past few weeks is no exageration. The exercise sessions all involve high-intensity plyometric “explosive” exercises. After every workout I’m breathing hard, sweating buckets (my lovely wife makes me Swiffer the floor after each session) and according to Traditional Chinese Medicine it’s definitely not something that I should be doing.
Each organ system in TCM is associated with a number of different physiological and mental variables. You can read more in depth about each organ in my “Organs in TCM” blog posts here. The relationship that’s important here is that the bodily fluid associated with the heart is sweat. Sweat too much, the theory goes and you begin to impair the organ’s function. It’s easy to see where this association comes from. When you work too hard, you sweat and your heart-rate goes up. Modern research has found that engaging in long-term, strenuous physical activity such as marathons and ultra-marathons can cause damage to the heart. The root cause of this damage is the increased cardiac load, not the loss of sweat itself, but the underlying relationship still holds true.
In general, TCM prefers gentle, low-impact exercises that have a strong focus on mental relaxation and Range-of-Motion such as walking, yoga, or Tai Chi. This is one area, however, where we need to pay close attention to the culture in which the medicine developed. Through most of Chinese Medicine’s history most of the people receiving treatments would have been farmers, craftsmen or other types of laborers. They did hard physical labor or a daily basis in their fields or shops and did most of their traveling on foot.
Imagine that you’re a subsistence farmer living in ancient China. You’ve just spent all day bent over in a water-logged field planting rice. You come home muscles aching and exhausted. You know what’s not super good for you right at that moment? A Crossfit class. Or a weight-lifting session. Or cardio kickboxing. Or spin class. What is super good for you is a type of exercise that won’t further strain your body, that will help you muscles unwind and will help preserve the full range-of-motion of your joints, an exercise routine that will relax your mind and help you sleep well that night. You need a peaceful walk, or Tai Chi. That’s the type of exercise that ‘balances’ with your lifestyle.
Fast-forward several hundred years and we find ourselves with the opposite problem. Most of us work from behind a desk and we’re much more likely to come home mentally and emotionally drained than physically exhausted. To ‘balance’ this sedentary lifestyle we need motion and activity and, yes, a bit of sweat too.
So how much exercise is too much? What type of exercise is best? A simple Google search will yield you rafts of information, much of it contradictory. The search for the magic ‘best’ exercise can be frustrating and confusing. Instead of trying to sift through the mountains of data available, try several different types of exercise and focus on listening to your body. Is it a type of exercise or activity you enjoy? Are you able to recover completely between sessions or do you feel yourself getting worn down by your routine? The latter can be a sign that you’re working your body harder than it can accommodate long-term. More sleep, better nutrition or a reduction in training intensity may be called for in that case. At the end of the day, the best exercise for you is the one that leaves you joyful, energized and invigorated, even if it does leave you dripping sweat all over the floor.