The Yin & Yang of Running
When it comes to health, exercise is a lot like food. What I mean is, we know greens are good for us but if that was all we ate, then they would soon become bad for us. And I think that is true of exercise. In the acupuncture clinic I see a lot of sports injuries caused not necessarily by the type of exercise (unless you consider darts to be exercise), but the amount. I’m talking about running. If you are into running then you know how addictive it can be. You start off just jogging around the block, and before you know it you are signing up for your first ultra! But maybe that was just me…..
Unlike activities like martial arts or dancing which take an element of skill, running is much more accessible. It is literally just putting one foot in front of the over, or controlled falling over. You don’t need to spend loads of money on equipment and clothing. You don’t even have to join a club. A good quality pair of running shoes is probably the only thing that will set you back a bit. And no one needs to show you how to run, we’ve been doing it for a long time!
There is nothing new about running of course.
There is evidence that ancient man used to run for long periods in order to track and wear out prey, known as persistence hunting. The idea being that animals cannot regulate their body heat by sweating as man can, so they eventually cannot flee any further and so succumb to the hunters. In fact it is a method still used by bushmen in the Kalahari desert and Rarámuri people in Mexico. It has also been hypothesised that the gluteus maximus muscle evolved to enable man to run. So it’s not just for sitting on.
What is new, however, is running for fun. It was Jim Fixx who started the craze of jogging in the 1970’s. Unfortunately he died of a heart attack at the age of 52 while out jogging. Despite this irony, there is no doubt that jogging is better than sitting around smoking and eating crisps. Most probably Mr. Fixx would have died at 47 if he hadn’t started jogging.
So when does running become not so good for you?
Basically, doing too much exercise is as bad as doing none. I used to run a lot. At the height of my training I was running 75 miles a week. I thought nothing about getting up at 5am on a Sunday and running for 5 hours. I loved running, but looking back I can see I was mostly chasing the fix. Like any addiction, the pleasurable part is satisfying the cravings, not the actual thing itself.
A used hinge does not rust.
There is no doubt that exercise is good for us, and there is much evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, to support this. But little is mentioned about the negative aspects of exercise; not only over-doing it, but the emotions associated with it too – fear, shame and guilt. If you’ve been following my blogs, you’ll know what these emotions can do to your Qi. Shame and guilt tangles Qi up and stops it from moving, and Fear descends Qi. Joy (or more accurately lack of Joy) needs something out of the ordinary to move it – like running 26.2 miles. And finally, Anger, which can be the result of Qi not moving (which we call Qi stagnation). We all know that runner who is unbearable to be around if for whatever reason they can’t get out for their run. It might even be you.
Exercise is important in Chinese Medicine. It keeps the qi moving which is good for body and Mind. It also prevents the accumulation of Dampness. Think of a wet tea towel that has just been screwed up and left in a corner. After a while it becomes a bit stinky; it needs to be hung out to let the air circulate. Your body is the same – the cells need oxygenating.
It is important to keep moving, whatever age you are. But balance is key: Chinese Medical theory makes it clear that any type of extreme is not a good thing. The ancient Taoist masters state that people should not only avoid overindulging, but also over exertion, which they say exhausts the sinews and bones.
When running goes bad
Which brings us to the tale of Pheidippides, who you probably would have only heard of for two reasons, 1. If you are into ancient Greek literature, or 2. If you have ever run a marathon. Pheidippides was a professional runner (or a courier on foot) who in 490 BC ran 280 miles over a period of 2 days (the actual mileage and period differs depending on what you read, but we can safely say he ran a long way in a short time) and then an additional 40km from Marathon to Athens to announce the news of the Greek victory over Persia. Unsurprisingly, after delivering his message he dropped dead. The marathon is of course named after this incredible feat.
While there is evidence that jogging (that is, running between 1 and 2.5 hours a week at a slow or average pace) can increase your lifespan by 6.2 years for men and 5.6 for women, the reverse is true for more running. Studies suggest that by doing more doesn’t mean more benefit, in fact it can mean the reverse. Excessive exercise can cause damage to the heart and coronary arteries, increasing the risk of heart problems and risk of stroke. Although a slow resting heart beat (as low as 40 bpm in some athletes) is considered to be a sign of good health, this may not be the case once they stop engaging in high levels of exercise. Other studies have also shown that endurance athletes have weak immune systems and are more prone to colds and asthma. Over-exercising in young women can also cause amenorrhoea (periods stopping) and other menstrual disorders, as well as reduced bone density.
For some people exercise can become more and more important in their routine, to a point where it disrupts their work and personal relationships. They feel frustrated and depressed when they can’t get their ‘fix’. As I stated above, this is related to Qi and Blood stagnation. The more hooked we become, the more we need to move our Qi and Blood and so feel invigorated.
The free flow of energy can be blocked by emotions and stress, which is why running can feel so good for our mental health. But although you feel good for a short time after exercising, it doesn’t deal with whatever is causing your Qi to be blocked. So it is a vicious circle of depletion. And it’s tough physically on those who have to run 30 or 40 miles a week to get their qi moving.
Running can become an addiction. Just the same as having to use caffeine, alcohol or drugs to get moving, running is the same. Although I’ve focused on running, the same applies equally to any endurance sport. But whatever your fix is, it’s deceptive. These things provide an initial high, but then an immediate slump. So at risk of repeating myself, it’s all about balance, just as Yin and Yang informs us that one extreme will only ever lead to its opposite extreme. Somewhere in the middle is needed.
Next week – What is considered ‘good’ exercise?