“I used to be in great shape…”
“I am trying to work out the way I did when I was younger, but I seem to be losing ground.”
“I love to play golf (tennis, pickleball, hiking, cycling etc) , but I seem to get hurt a lot these days.”
“After my surgery, I just don’t have the energy to exercise.”
“I’ve always hated exercise. Now I’m in pain and the gym just makes it worse.”
I hear these complaints all the time from my clients at the various active adult communities where I teach. I teach Qigong, also called Chi Gong or Chi Kung, which is a basic component of Chinese medicine.
According to Qigong theory, there is a simple explanation for why these things happen to us as we age, and …..there is a simple solution.
You have probably seen a Yin/Yang circle; half black half white with an “S” curve through the middle. It represents the idea of balance between opposites. Black/White. Up/Down. Fast/Slow. Exertion/Rest. And so on. The proper balance between opposite forces is what makes the world go ‘round.
Great health and fitness need the proper balance between using up energy, Yang, and replenishing energy, Yin. Think of health as an energy reservoir. Certain activities, described as Yang, use up that energy. Things that deplete your energy are stress, illness, injury, lack of sleep and lack of rest. Even enjoyable activities can use more energy than they build.
Other activities, referred to as Yin, recharge energy. Things that help re-fill your reservoir are healthy food, good sleep, and the right kind of exercise.
Neither, Yang, (depleting energy), nor, Yin, (replenishing energy), is good or bad all by itself. The balance between them is what counts. Your reservoir needs to have enough energy flow to support you throughout your life.
In Western medicine, this corresponds to which branch of the autonomic nervous system is dominant. When we are stressed, the sympathetic nervous system is in control. This is called the “Fight or Flight” response. Your heart rate goes up. Blood pressure goes up. Your breathing becomes more rapid and shallow. In chronic stress, Fight or Flight is active all the time with the terrible health consequences we see today.
When we are relaxed and in the groove, the parasympathetic nervous system is at work. This is sometimes called “The Relaxation Response.” Your heart rate goes down. Blood pressure goes down. Breathing becomes slower and deeper. All healing, all rebuilding – all recharging your energy reservoir – happens when you are relaxed; when the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant and the flight or fight response is turned OFF!
In terms of fitness, there are Yin activities and there are Yang activities, too. Yang activities are things like running, jumping; anything fast and vigorous! Yang exercises expend a lot of energy. You have probably heard that the amount of time we rest after exercise is as important as the exercise itself. Vigorous, or Yang exercise means the sympathetic nervous system is in play. Even if we enjoy an activity like running a marathon or playing tennis, we are expending more energy than we can build back up when we rest. We are drawing on our reserves.
Yin activities are slower, calmer, more precise and gentle. And here is the key: Yin activities build more energy than they expend. The secret to Qigong movements is that they are Yin. They restore your energy reserves while you are moving and getting fit. Many people who try Qigong for the first time marvel at how energized, yet relaxed, they feel afterwards.
The reason we have all these complaints as we age is simply that our energy reservoirs are depleted and we must restore the balance between Yang and Yin. We have expended more of this vital energy over our lifetime than we have rebuilt from sleep, rest, restorative exercise and healthy food. The mistake we make now is to try to rebuild our reserves using Yang activities. This further depletes the system.
The solution is simple: increase the amount of time we spend in Yin activities, like Qigong, Tai Chi, meditation and very gentle yoga. Only after we replenish and heal, will we have the vital energy we need to enjoy more vigorous activities without pain and fatigue.