Moving into the New Year, I want to take the time to write about the most important determinant of health and happiness besides food—exercise. Working with thousands of clients over the years has given me countless examples of the exercise imperative: move it or lose it! Moving our bodies consciously and regularly is truly the magic bullet of health, if there is one. Five element theory provides a way to think about the diverse benefits of a truly balanced approach to movement. Give your routine a tune-up now and you’ll reap the benefits throughout 2014.
Metal-Lungs: The Lungs govern qi and to keep the lungs working well and our vitality strong we need to keep our qi and blood moving with regular aerobic exercise (you are breathing faster but are not out of breath) punctuated by bouts of anaerobic exercise (you get out of breath). You can pick a baseline aerobic activity—walking, hiking, running, biking, dancing, sports, and do it regularly. The health benefits of aerobic activity became popularized in the 70’s (Ken Cooper’s book Aerobics made a huge impression on me as a kid), but new research has shown that the anaerobic activities we do can have a greater impact in shorter time on mood, cardiovascular health and metabolism than the old-style steady state aerobic workout. The easiest way is simply to incorporate sprints into your baseline aerobic workout. The runner’s practice of fartlek, or speed play, is an informal technique where you simply vary your pace throughout your run, adding short sprints as you see fit. Minimum is three times a week, 6-7 is optimal.
Wood—Liver: The liver rules the tendons and keeps us supple and flowing. The free and easy wanderer keeps moving easily by stretching, another key component of vital movement. Many newbie exercises and weekend warriors err by stretching a lot when muscles are cold—it’s less effective and likely to cause injury. Instead, incorporate a stretch break into the middle of your aerobic workout or make time to stretch at the end. Doing a lot of stretching once a week (i.e. a yoga or stretch class) can be as effective as stretching in shorter bouts more often. Minimum: once a week to daily.
Earth—Spleen: this element connects to our tissue and muscles and the way to support them is to do strength training. Women lose 1% of muscle mass per year starting in their 30’s, men in the 40’s, if they don’t make a concerted effort to maintain strength. Lifting heavy things as part of daily life is good, but most of us need to supplement that with some focused strength training, which doesn’t have to be at the gym, although the gym can be a quick and easy way to get your strength needs met. Body weight exercises like pushups, burpees, squats and wall sits can be done anywhere with just your good self as the weight. Yoga and Pilates can build strength (and alignment, and balance and suppleness) when designed with that intent. Research has shown health benefits beginning with just 1 strength session a week (and 1 set!) but 2-3 times a week is safer and less likely to cause injury. After years of doing free weights at the gym I’m totally bored with that, so my new favorite is body-sculpting classes at the Y—it’s a strength focused workout using body and hand weights that reminds me of muscles I had forgotten I had.
Water-Kidney: Our kidney energy is connected to willpower, longevity and development. It is supported by practices that require discipline to develop skill, particularly those movement practices derived from the ancient wisdom traditions of yoga, martial arts and some forms of dance. Working toward mastery in sports such as swimming, tennis or ping pong is another form of cultivation, and has been shown to be supportive in preventing cognitive decline.
Fire-Heart: The heart is much more than the engine of the cardiovascular system in Chinese medicine: it is the seat of spirit and all the functions of consciousness. The heart is affected by joy, and joyful movement is a tonic for the spirit. Movement in nature, movement that connects you to others (dance, partner yoga, team sports), movement to music, free from movement such as ecstatic dance and forms of qi gong and nei gong, or any type of movement that makes you happy counts. The other side of joyful movement is conscious stillness, or intentional relaxation techniques. Taking time for shivasana at the end of yoga class, progressive muscle relaxation, catnaps and receiving bodywork are ways to balance the joy of movement with the pleasure of intentional stillness–which is quite different from inertia.
The balance of these elements that is right of each of us depends on age, constitution, lifestyle and season, so we each need to find our own mix. And many activities incorporate several of the elements. For me, lately a mix of running, Zumba, yoga, body sculpting and meditative dance has been keeping my body and soul humming along nicely. A toast to finding your optimal mix for 2014!
And so as to not break my tradition of a recipe in every post, here is our current favorite dessert which is helping wean us off the sugar habit from the holidays.
Adapted from The Jungle Effect by Daphne Miller
Peel and slice 3 oranges latitudinally into rounds, and lay on a plate. Drizzle with 1 tsp. raw honey and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon. Chill and serve.