Director of the Tao of Healing, Nan Lu, examines shifting perspectives on exercise and discusses a new paradigm emerging in mainstream Western medicine that views the individual as a whole being.

By the Tao of Healing Staff; Nan Lu, O.M.D., LAc., Director 

Cardiovascular exercise is good for you—or is it?  Now that a new paradigm is emerging in mainstream Western medicine, one that views the individual as a whole being with body, mind, and spirit interconnected and supported by an underlying energy system, isn’t it time to rethink the old huff-and-puff/sweat-it-out exercise routine? 

The term “cardiovascular” means “pertaining to the heart and blood vessels,” while “exercise” refers to “bodily exertion for the sake of developing and maintaining physical fitness.”  Yet if Western scientific studies have proven that negative mental and emotional states are stronger predictors of coronary artery and heart disease than many physical factors, and modalities like stress reduction actually decrease the risk of heart problems more effectively than routine cardiac care, doesn’t it make sense to exercise in a different way—one that really creates heart health?

It’s not an understatement to say that traditional Chinese medicine has a real issue with cardio exercise.  First of all, there’s the sweat.  In Chinese medicine, one of the functions of the Heart is to control body fluids.  Sweat or perspiration is considered the “fluid” of the Heart, and so if you sweat a lot you are actually unbalancing the Qi, or energy, of your Heart.  In the case of perspiring too much and losing too many fluids, you are creating an energy deficiency of the Heart, which can prevent this organ system from functioning well. 

Then there’s the issue of the tendons and ligaments.  These areas of your body are completely dependent upon sufficient blood from the Liver to nourish them.  Strenuous and excessive exercise, such as intense aerobic and running workouts, is hard on the joints—the tendons and ligaments.  Think about what’s happening inside your body from a different perspective:  when you overwork your joints, the Liver has to send more blood to help restore them, and on a continual basis this depletes the Liver’s energy.  This is especially problematic for women because the Liver is a very important organ in terms of women’s health.  It’s a fact that excessive exercise can cause a woman’s periods to stop. The close relationship between the tendons and the Liver is the reason why.  In Chinese medicine’s Five Element theory the Liver is the “mother” of the Heart (the “child”), meaning the Liver supports and nourishes the Heart with its energy.  If the mother becomes depleted, how can the child have vibrant health?

More essentially, Chinese medicine sees intense physical exercise as spending precious internal energy that is very difficult to replace, and not creating true health—either Heart health or health in general.  Consider for a moment, what is missing from your body once you are dead?  Qi, or vital life energy, is the key component.  Wouldn’t it make sense then, to pursue a form of “exercise” that actually increases this life-giving, life-enhancing energy instead of using it up?  Meditation, for instance, now has been shown to create positive changes in the areas of the brain linked with emotion as well as increase immune function and blood flow, decrease blood pressure, and generally lower heart rate.  What Eastern masters have known intuitively for thousands of years is that systems like Qigong, Taiji, yoga, and meditation—movement forms that are slow, if not stationary, and that are peaceful and resonate with the water-like frequency of the body—actually create health from the inside out.  It’s interesting that well-trained athletes can have exceptional difficulty holding the most basic Qigong postures for more than a few minutes.  What’s going on when this happens?  It is the quantity and quality of internal energy that is lacking.  And from the Eastern perspective, the Chinese medicine perspective, Qi is the origin of true strength and power as well as genuine health—body, mind, and spirit.


Nan Lu, O.M.D., LAc., is the founding director of the Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation, which sponsors Building Bridges of Integration for Traditional Chinese Medicine, a yearly conference on Chinese medicine and natural forms of healing.  He maintains a practice in Chinese medicine at the Tao of Healing in New York City.  Dr. Lu has authored three books and numerous articles on traditional Chinese medicine and is a frequent speaker on Chinese medicine, Qigong, and Five Element Consciousness at conferences and symposiums in the United States and throughout the world.  Please visit www.tcmconference.org, www.tcmworld.org or www.taoofhealing.com for more information.

© 2009  The Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation.  All rights reserved.  This article may not be reproduced or used for publication without the express permission of the author or Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation, New York, NY.

[A version of this article originally appeared in Harmony – Ancient Wisdom for Modern Wellness.]