John Aguilar, Jr., L.Ac., R.Y.T., M.S.TCM

Licensed AcupuncturistChinese Medical HerbalistYoga and Tai Chi Instructor



Basics of Healthy Exercise

Hallmarks of Proper Exercise

Warning Signs of Improper Exercise

How to Improve Any Exercise Routine

A Simple Exercise to Begin With


To begin, though it seems obvious, let's talk for a second about why exercise is important. From a Chinese medical perspective, good health is dependent upon the free flow of qi (pronounced 'chee') and blood. This could, roughly, be understood as healthy circulation. This unimpeded flow of qi and blood is how the various organs and systems of the body get the energy, nutrition, and guidance they need to operate.

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Basics of Healthy Exercise

Ideally, exercise would

These fundamentals of exercise may vary from a modern understanding of what constitutes healthy exercise.

Exercise, like standard medical treatment and diet, has therapeutic effects on the body. Exercise can not only prevent illness but be active therapy for disease. To have this effect, however, it has to occur on an almost daily basis. In fact, one of the hallmarks of truly healthy exercise is that there is a spontaneous desire to do it everyday! If it is good for the body, the body will come to naturally crave it. It follows, then, that if there is an aversion to an exercise routine, it is likely that routine, itself, is not healthy.

Proper exercise should also stimulate all parts of the body and do so in a way that engages the body as a whole. For example, according to classical theory, the Chinese martial art/exercise of Tai Chi Chuan is meant to be practiced where each part of the body is connected to every other part. It is written that when one part of the body moves, the whole body moves. The body is designed and structured to function as a whole. No muscle moves in absolute isolation; no action is supported by a single tendon or nerve. Healthy exercise fully incorporates this basic state of the body.

All parts of the body should be stimulated, as well. Again, this is exemplified in traditional Chinese martial arts. For example, the yoga-like system of exercises created for the Chinese Shaolin monks by Bodhidharma called the I Chin Ching, works the legs, abdomen, chest, and arms, while also stimulating and strengthening the wrists, ankles, and neck and improving balance. Modern exercises such as running and weightlifting are examples of isolating and over emphasizing specific parts of the body while under training others. 

Additionally, for exercise to be truly healthy, it should stimulate and strengthen the body, not wear it down and cause damage through excessive stress and tension. An exercise routine should improve your health over decades. We should get healthier and stronger as we age. Again, we can look to wisdom accumulated over generations in traditional Chinese culture. Referring back to the martial art of Tai Chi Chuan, its practitioners gained greater fighting ability as they trained over decades. The elder masters of the art could easily dispense multiple assailants a quarter of their age. With proper exercise, you should grow stronger, more flexible, and more agile as you age.

Lastly, in line with the idea of exercise working the whole body, healthy exercise fully engages your consciousness. That is, when you exercise, your attention should be on the exercise. Listening to music or watching t.v. while working out cleaves the body and mind, reduces the health-inducing aspects of the exercise, and increases the likelihood of poor or over training. Many listen to music during exercise to 'pump' them up or help them get through the session, such as a long run. The need or enjoyment of such distraction during exercise indicates that the exercise is not healthy. Exercise should be fully engaging, enjoyable, and rewarding.

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Hallmarks of proper exercise

There are hallmarks of healthy exercise and warning signs of unhealthy exercise.

Some of the hallmarks of proper exercise are:

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Warning signs of improper exercise:

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Improve Any Exercise Routine

The following suggestions will likely improve the health benefits (physical and mental/emotional) of your exercise routine.

1) Relax.

Absolutely fundamental to health is the 'free flow of qi and blood'. When the mind and body are relaxed, the channels and pathways of energy and blood that nourish and support the entire being are open. When exercising, the need for such unimpeded flow of energy and blood is dramatically increased. Obviously exercise requires the tensing of certain muscles at certain times, but when a muscle is not actively being used it should be relaxed to facilitate healthy free flow.

An example from my own training is when doing push-ups. Sometimes I will catch myself grimacing,  tensing my face. This not only obstructs the free flow of blood and qi through those channels (which reduces access to qi and blood of the organs and parts of the body further down those channels) it simultaneously uses energy above and beyond what the push-up, itself, requires. This means there is excessive, unnecessary expenditure of energy, tiring me more quickly, as well as leaving less energy for the development of the part of the body I'm training. In essence, it's inefficient training, using more than what's needed, and reducing specific effectiveness.

The general idea is if it's not being used it should be relaxed. In a way, it's simple energy conservation; if you don't need to use it, don't. Another example would be from the book "Way of the Peaceful Warrior", by Dan Millman (HJ Kramer/New World Library).  In this story, a disciple is asked to feel his newly found master's calf muscle while the master stands on that leg. We would expect the muscle, since it is being used, to be tense. However, when the student feels the calf, he is able to push through the muscle all the way to the bone. Clearly, this teacher is being extremely efficient in the use of his body. He is using such a small amount of tension, the smallest amount required, that the muscle is still relaxed enough to yield to the pressing finger.

No matter what your exercise, try to relax the entire body. Obviously whatever is being directly and immediately used won't relax completely, but I'll bet that if you pay close attention 80-90% of the muscle tension present is not directly supporting the activity and is, in fact, wasting and obstructing your energy.

2) Focus on the exercise.

One of the most prevalent mistakes modern Americans make in exercising is distracting their minds while doing it. Naturally, then, one of the most profound changes we can make is to engage consciousness -  directly and completely - in our exercise. This is where even walking can become a deeply effective form of whole body exercise.

When you think about it, being mentally engaged in exercise should come naturally. In a healthy state, the mind and body are integrated, functioning as a whole, complete unit. Or, more accurately, it's in illness when the mind and body separate (to get really picky - it is in illness that the intrinsic unity splits creating the appearance of a distinct 'mind' and 'body').  

When we exercise, the mind is necessarily engaged, at least to some degree. Over time, this engagement degrades, the mind and body separate. Eventually, our minds are only minimally engaged, while our attention is diverted to multiple other events. In exercise, this lack of focus reduces the efficacy of the exercise, while simultaneously increasing the likelihood of causing damage. This can be explained by the fact that as the mind-body unity becomes ill, it begins to separate, resulting in the separate entities 'mind' and 'body'. When those two are exercised as distinct entities (the body doing one thing, the mind another), the cause of the separation is reinforced, leading to a vicious cycle - health continually degrading. This degradation manifests as ineffectual exercise (due to lack of focus), and increased chance of injury. It follows, then, that engaging the mind during exercise, integrating mind and body, alone, constitutes  fundamental movement towards better health; this movement manifesting concretely as effective, safe exercise.

If you lift weights, then concentrate on the specific muscle group your are working (while relaxing the rest of the body). If you walk, then be conscious of the heel hitting the ground, the movement of the outer edge of foot coming down, followed by the balls of the toes. Feel the arms swing gently forward and backward as sort of counterbalance to the legs. Feel the hips and shoulders alternating opening and closing.  

During any exercise, feel the lungs breathe deeply. Feel the body react to greater need by expanding the lungs fully; feel them fill. Experience the heart rising to meet the demand by cycling blood and nutrients through the body at a quicker pace. Then when you cool down, feel the body slowly returning to a more peaceful state. We speak as if this were your 'body', but, in truth, it is you. Experience it. 

3) Follow your instincts on training duration, intensity, frequency, etc.

We often get carried away in what we think we should do for exercise. We take the idea of goal setting to an extreme and force our bodies into unhealthy exercise regimens. Even after many years of martial arts training, I still catch myself talking myself into routines that are too much for where I am, physically, thus over training and doing damage. It happens.

Ideally, our minds and bodies would be so in tune with each other (or, rather, be able to transcend the illusion of separation) that we would train exactly how and how much we need for that day, and no more. Remember, exercise is healthy. When done correctly, the body spontaneously wants to do it and wants to stop when it `ceases being healthy. The body, by design, health. If you have to force yourself, you are, by definition, causing damage.

This can get confusing and complicated. Some types of 'pushing' ourselves are natural and healthy. The emphasis here is on 'natural', as opposed to 'forced'. The less we pay attention to ourselves, the more split our minds and bodies are, the less clear the distinction between natural and forced appears. Again, the cycle of ill health perpetuates itself - the mind and body split due to ill health, then they act as such making the situation worse.

Following your instincts is intimately connected with focus and concentration. To know what your instincts are, you have to be listening; you have to pay attention. Exercise is an ideal place for all of this. During exercise the body is very active; it is, in essence, screaming at you, making it easier to pay attention. This acts as a megaphone pressed to the lips of your instincts. 

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