Getting to the Heart of Exercising

Is exercise good for one’s health? Before you answer that question, ask yourself how you define health. Do you really have an understanding of health or do you, like western medicine, define it simply as the absence of disease. Looking at athletes or compulsive exercisers from the standpoint of bloodwork, MRIs or CT scans one finds no disease, but does that prove health.

By no means do I intend to state that athletes or the countless millions of exercisers out there are sick and unhealthy, but I encourage the reader to expand one’s definition of health and to question the current dogma regarding proper exercise and the effects that aerobic exercise have on one’s heart, circulation and overall well-being.

In Chinese medicine we define health as the balance of yin and yang and the smooth flow of qi and blood. With this barometer in mind, we can evaluate changes and deviations from the definition of health, especially as it relates to the health of the heart, and concomitantly, the circulation and rest of the organism.

The heart is deemed equivalent to the emperor. With its paramount function of circulating blood throughout the body, it effects every nook and cranny of the organism and every organ, tissue, cell relies on the heart for nourishment. Should any part be deprived of this nourishment, it will eventually succumb. Weakness or instability in the heart will effect every part of the body, just as disturbance or imbalance in the emperor will cause chaos in the rest of the empire.

With the exercise craze that has overtaken our country, many are pushing their bodies past the limits, and are, in fact, doing more harm than good. Exercise needs to be done in accordance with one’s constitutional strengths and weaknesses in mind. For some without the constitution of an olympic athlete, trying to engage in strenuous exercise and training regimes will only leave them weakened and depleted. Eventually, if they do not heed the warning signs, illness will result.

Some of the earliest warning signs are fatigue, poor recuperation, sleep disturbances (difficulty falling or staying asleep, waking not rested), emotional lability, anxieties, depressions, achiness or wandering arthritic-like pains.

One of the most troubling signs of the over-exerciser is the slowing of one’s heart rate. While I know conventional medicine considers that to be a sign of a healthy efficient heart, in Chinese medicine, we understand the opposite. See the charts below for the healthy ranges of one’s heart rate according to one’s age.

Dr. Shen
Age: Rate:
Birth to 4 years 84-90/min
4-10 78-84/min
10-15 78-80/min
16-40 72-78/min
40-50 72/min
50+ years 66-72/min

Age: Rate:
In embryo 150-160/min
Upon birth 130-140/min
First year 115-130/min
Second year 100-115/min
Third year 90-100/min
Age 4-7 85-90/min
Age 8-14 80-85/min
Adolescence 85-90/min
Adulthood 75-80/min
Old age 60-75/min
Decrepitude 75-80/min

Hammer, Leon, Chinese Pulse Diagnosis, A Contemporary Approach, Eastland Press, 2001, p. 152.

What is obvious from this chart is that from our earliest age (in utero) our heart rate is the fastest. Upon birth, it is significantly slower and continues to slow as we age until death. Heart rate is actually a good barometer of the health of one’s heart. As we age, our heart rate gets slower and slower until we die. With heavy exercise beyond one’s innate capabilities, we accelerate the process of aging our heart and move closer and closer to death.

Another very common sign of the over-exerciser is the Ropy pulse. The Ropy pulse is defined by its distinctness from the surrounding tissues. It feels as if it can be plucked right out of the wrist. It signifies hardening of the arteries. The process as it relates to over-exercising is defined very succinctly by Dr. Leon Hammer is his book cited above.

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