Exercise – Working it out

September 7th, 2016




Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.

Jim Rohn



Today’s blog looks at an area that profoundly affects our health and quality of life. We will be taking a somewhat unconventional view with the purpose of bringing some balance to the amount of potentially harmful exercise propaganda that floods the media and our lives. Let us kick start this Monday Conscious Health blog begin a little heresy to the modern Western attitude to exercise written over 3000 years ago…



“Over walking/exercise injures the heart.”


This is the correspondence classical Chinese medicine makes regarding the physical stress of exercise. We will return to what those cagey old Taoists meant by that statement a little later on. In the meantime most of us have been brought up to believe that exercise is good for us and, by and large, it is. As with most things in life however, one can get too much of a good thing. But first…



A little history


In the 1970’s the running craze hit the Western world and people like James Fixx  was promising that anyone who could complete a marathon would be immunised from heart disease for 10 years.1 While exercise is indeed useful for increasing fitness, strength, flexibility and coordination, it can also damage the body.


fun run


Early in my therapeutic career I treated competitive athletes. They reminded me of racing cars – finely tuned and capable of great performance but also liable to break down at any moment. Aside from a litany of soft tissue injuries the prospect of an enlarged heart muscle from years of pushing high-pressures through the cardiovascular system is very real.


Of course, there is a lot of money to made in the fitness industry so the negative side effects of pushing our body to the edge of its limits are usually downplayed or ignored.



So, is exercise bad?


“Everything counts in large amounts.” as the saying goes. With exercise it is a question of amount, intensity and selecting the appropriate form of exercise for the individual. Consider a person weighing 120kg who wants to lose weight and improve their fitness. A typical 5km run for example means carrying that weight approximately 4500 steps.




In addition, rising up and falling with each running step increases the impact weight of each step considerably. No wonder so many amateur joggers suffer from knee, hip and back pain. The unwelcome increase in work for the heart does them no favours either.  Witness the incidence of heart attacks and chest distress on fun runs every year.


It is not that exercise is bad, more that we need to respect and have a realistic assessment of our own health and fitness along with realistic goals. Trying to push ourselves to an elite level of fitness when the rest of our lifestyle cannot support that is a recipe for health problems. After all, professional athletes generally do not have to also juggle a day job, child rearing, skipped or fast food meals and lost sleep.


We also need to look at the types of exercise most suited to our body type and fitness levels. If we are overweight, we could look at low-impact exercise like swimming, walking and cycling instead of running. Alternatively, our focus could be more on flexibility and lowering stress levels, in which case we might look more towards practices like yoga and breathing exercises.



The energy model of exercise


There is another school of thought regarding exercise: The energy or ‘software-consciousness’ model of the body. This is seen in traditional Chinese medicine and influences healing practices and certain exercise forms. It sees the heart energy as the centre of all our conscious connection to our Self. Rather than push large amounts of pressure through the heart through cardiovascular exertion it seeks to relax and slow down this pressure through the heart as much as possible.


Tai Chi class at DHA

Tai Chi class at DHA


That is why exercises like Tai Chi and Chi Gong are so popular in China. Not only does it allow people of all ages to practice them, it calms the cardiovascular and nervous system while not unduly straining the physical structures of the body. Where we in the West sometimes treat our body like a clogged up car that is given a ‘clean out’ by driving at high speed on the freeway, the energy model tries to avoid clogging the body in the first place and the extreme swings of activity that compensate for it.



Stress and exercise choices


When we are stressed, we secrete stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline into the blood. Not only do these send us into a highly strung ‘spin’, they increase our desire for instant fuel. In today’s society that means refined sugars and fats – along with unhealthy levels of stimulants like caffeine.


Of course, once we eat all that extra carbohydrates, fats and stimulants we need to do something with it. In nature that would normally mean using our fight/flight response to jump into physical action of some sort. In modern life though, stress is often internalised below the surface, like the furious paddling of a swan beneath a calm exterior.


swan paddling


When our life resembles the internal turmoil of a laboratory hamster on amphetamines is it not surprising that we seek a equally violent physical outlet for all that stress? The explosion of the ‘fitness’ market bears witness to this.



Look in any gym window and see the rows of sweating, earnest individuals strapped into treadmills, elliptical machines, pumping weight stacks or manically performing all manner of floor exercises they would never do anywhere else in their life. All of this being an attempt to redress the balance of internalised stress – which of course introduces another stress to their bodies.


Perhaps if we looked at our lifestyle and reduced our stress levels in the first place we would not need the compensatory swings of sugar, fats, stimulants and manic exercise regimes. Every swing of that pendulum introduces wear on tear on the body and the heart in particular.



Breaking our heart


We have seen in previous blogs that our heart can be detrimentally affected by stress. We saw that cortisol ages the heart muscle itself. Stress hormones can cause vasoconstriction, raising our blood pressure. When we then try to force the stress out of our bodies through strong exercise exertion it is like driving our car with the handbrake half on.


Our well-meaning attempt to improve our condition can actually make it worse. Ironically working out to the level where we can no longer get enough oxygen through our nose and are forced to mouth breath to make up the shortfall can cause an increase in stress hormones.


© www.minimatemultiverse.com

© www.minimatemultiverse.com


Our first priority then, needs to be reducing our stress levels – not just (literally) running away from them. If we have to regularly work ourselves into an uncomfortable, sweaty lather just to feel somewhat ‘normal’ again, something is out of balance in our life.



Finding our centre


In the energy-consciousness model, the heart centre is considered the internal connector between our conscious and unconscious. It registers where we are at odds with ourselves. When we refuse to look at our internal conflicts and contradictions (manifesting as ‘uncomfortable’ emotions) we are forced to drown out that signal in progressively more compulsive and self destructive ways. Addictions like food, alcohol and yes, exercise can be some of the ways we do this.


Perhaps a better approach would be to first go within and look at where that fire is burning. It might result in us being a little kinder and more compassionate to ourselves instead of punishing our restlessness and discomfort by adding the overcompensation of manic workouts that further exhaust us.


leunig rest


As with most things in life, it is better to do something because we choose to (and choose not to without guilt) instead of feeling compelled without ever knowing why.



Until another Monday  compels us to do nothing much in particular,




1 His best selling book at the time ‘The Complete Book of Running’ in 1977 helped launch the running/jogging craze. He also claimed that you could eat whatever you liked as long as you kept up a regular running regime. Unfortunately and somewhat ironically, he died of a massive heart attack at only 52 years of age – while running.


© Jeremy Halpin all rights reserved. All images are the author’s own unless otherwise indicated or if the original source is unknown at the time of writing. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking the button in the bottom right hand corner of the page – or share it on the social media of your choice. If you have any wishes or questions regarding subjects to be discussed on this blog use the contact information below. Jeremy is also available for seminars, lectures and personal consultation: info@jeremyhalpin.com

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