I am often asked what type of exercise regimen one should begin as part of a health restoration program. There are so many different types of exercises available and so many places to do them that beginning such a program can seem daunting. This is especially true for those who have lived a sedentary lifestyle for a few years.
The thrust of the advice I espouse is one of prevention by means of self-direction. This means that it is not necessary to join a gym or purchase a treadmill in order to restore health through exercise.
Indeed, immediately joining an aerobics class or churning out miles on a treadmill can actually cause pain if you are not currently “in shape.” And since we are more concerned here with changing lifestyle patterns and outlooks, it is best to start slow. Then you can build to more challenging activities as your body grows stronger and your interest grows.
I don’t personally enjoy lifting weights, jogging or aerobic exercises. However, I do train in the martial arts and engage in a regular program of qigong standing and brisk walking as mind/body exercises. Since any health approach should incorporate an integrated mind/body theme, this must be an essential component of the physical activity you choose as exercise.
In this way, in addition to burning calories, increasing oxygen intake, stabilizing blood fats and sugars and releasing those feel-good hormones, you will also develop a mind/body center that will help focus your thoughts, emotions and spirit and help reduce the stress and anxiety that often accompany ill health.
Let’s look at two exercises that are easy to do, enjoyable and will get you toned and in shape while also offering a means of connecting your mind and body. These are Brisk Walking and Qigong Standing.
If done correctly, brisk walking can be one of the safest, most beneficial and enjoyable of exercises. Walking is an aerobic activity, but since it is low-impact there is little wear-and-tear on the joints and little (if any) triggering of pain from the jarring action of the body experienced in high-impact aerobic exercise or jogging. Although it is a simple activity, walking actually utilizes most of the muscles of the body to propel you forward and keep you on balance. It also increases respiration, heart and lung function, blood and oxygen flow and the “burning off” of blood sugars and fats. It facilitates the removal of toxins and other wastes through sweat and improved eliminative functions.
Walking is so simple and ordinary, yet in one 30-minute session you can raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL)—the good—cholesterol levels, increase respiration within safe limits, sweat out toxins, release feel-good hormones called endorphins, improve heart function, begin reducing weight, reduce stress, promote relaxation and improve overall endurance and body tone. Amazing.
Many of the triggers that attack our health can be reduced or eliminated simply by walking. And this activity only requires time, as no special place need be made to do it—though it is preferable to walk in a park as opposed to a busy city sidewalk.
Though walking in and of itself is a common activity, few of us do it properly. In fact, walking as we naturally do will do little for our purposes. You must look to walking as a mind/body activity, wherein your mind is clear, emotions calm, respiration steady, body properly aligned and relaxed and each walking step even and balanced. If you are able to integrate each of these components while briskly walking for at least 30 minutes a day, then your walks can be considered a microcosm of an integrated mind/body approach to health and wellness
Qigong is an ancient Chinese mind/body discipline that seeks to establish a healthy body by developing the so-called three treasures and three regulations. The three treasures are known in Chinese as jing (essence), qi (vital energy) and shen (spirit).
Jing is simply the body’s energy that is derived from glucogen and turned into glucose that is used to propel the body during any physical activity.
Qi has a number of meanings, many of which are esoteric and difficult to comprehend in Western terms. However, all of these meanings and definitions involve the coordination of breath or respiration with concentration.
Shen encompasses the many functions of the mind and your emotions and disposition.
Qigong, then, is primarily concerned with focus, intention and thought, as it is the intention that leads the breath to develop energy to power the body to then help make us healthy.
I have found that despite the hundreds of qigong practices, they all have a similar theme. Therefore, the more simple the qigong system the better (especially for busy Americans).
I have chosen to describe here the method known as zhanzhuang, or simply the “standing pole” method. It requires only enough space to stand still, and it is so simple that you will not be distracted by having to remember specific sequences of movement.
In a nutshell, this practice is as easy as standing with your legs a shoulder’s width apart with the knees bent only one or two inches and with both arms bent and held at the same level. Below are three standing postures for you to do in sequence.
1. Hand Floating On Water Hold your arms out to their respective sides, palms facing down. Try to visualize that your palms are floating on water. Be sure to keep them in place and not move them during the exercise.
2. Hugging A Tree From the previous posture, slowly raise your arms to chest level while pulling them inward. You want to feel as if you are hugging a tree, which is a mental image to keep your arms from coming too close to the body. Relax your hands and elbows and wrists, again like they are floating on water.
3. Holding Up The Sky From the previous posture, slowly rotate your palm outward while lifting your arms upward. The final position should find your hands at about forehead height, extended slightly forward and upward, as if holding up the sky from falling.
Once each posture is assumed, do the following steps:
- Quiet the mind by not stressing over distracting thoughts that may come—simply allow them to go freely without passing judgment.
- Regulate respiration by quietly breathing in and out at a steady relaxed pace. Now enjoy yourself for the next nine minutes.
- After nine minutes, slowly move your arm position to the next posture. Do not excite your mind or move your legs as this will distract your energy and intention.
Sounds simple, but so much is going on. Here is a quote from Traditional Chinese Therapeutic Exercises—Standing Pole, by Wang Xuanjei and J.P.C. Moffett:
“Standing pole is an exercise of the whole body. As the outer form of the body is not moved, all the internal organs settle, while all metabolic functions increase. This develops movement within non-movement, that is, unhindered internal activity and movement within external stillness. It is a non-violent and non-overburdening exercise, simultaneously providing rest and exercise, easily adaptable to any condition and encouraging development of the body’s innate strengths and abilities in a natural way.”
You see, while it appears as if you are doing nothing at all, in actuality the body is engaged in a process of physical activity. While quieting the mind and regulating respiration you are reducing stress, relaxing the cerebral cortex and rejuvenating the central nervous system. You are also working muscles by virtue of maintaining an isometric posture wherein the knees and elbows are bent, the arms are raised and this position held steady without release until the end of the session. This elevates heart rate without overtaxing the heart, improves the circulation of blood and oxygen throughout the body and increases metabolic functions while releasing toxins and tension from the body.
You’ll be surprised to find how difficult merely standing still can be. To be honest, most people have difficulty standing still (unmoving/frozen) for more than five minutes. Whether you think you’re already fit, or in need of more tone… give qigong a try. The results may surprise you.
Go ahead and take a brisk 30-minute walk and later that day or the next day, stand still for 30 minutes. You may find you’ve never felt better.
—Dr. Mark Wiley