Classical Chinese Medicine

Work – Rest Balance

Normal work and physical activity are beneficial to maintain proper circulation, build health, maintain proper body function and to support the ability to resist disease. Likewise appropriate rest can restore the body helping to relieve physical and mental weariness and restore physical strength. While each of these, activity and rest both physical and mental, are important, it is the balance between the two which establishes a normal, active life. Any imbalance increases our susceptibility to disease.

In Chinese Medicine, excesses physical activity and mental strain are said to consume our bodies resources and result in disorder of our systemic processes. Excesses in comfort result in impeded circulation within the body systems such as the lymphatic and circulatory system. Many cultures have realized the need to construct such a balance both work and rest. Unfortunately, modern society has upset the apple cart with this simple approach. The areas of Physical and Mental Strain are complete areas of study on their own and we will only briefly touch on each of these areas unless there is an expressed interest for a deeper discussion.

Physical Strain

Physical strain results from excess physical labor or activity. This can be the result of heavy taxation of a physical job, or over involvement in physical activities such as running, weight lifting, sports, etc. While physical labor is obvious, involvement in non-work physical activities can become an obsession. The “More is Better” concept endemic to western, and now global, society has extended beyond material acquisition to areas of recreational or physical activity. In Chinese Medicine theories any type of physical strain, regardless of its source, lead to over consumption and impairment of the nutritional and reparative aspects of the body and mind. Mild states of excess physical exertion results in symptoms such as lassitude, lack of energy, disinclination to communicate, mental exhaustion, excessive leanness. More extensive cases can manifest in the form of cumulative injury to body structures (bones, tendons, muscles, joints, etc.), and susceptibility to disease. One of the Chinese classics on medicine states this simply:

“Overexertion results in exhaustion and impairment of intrinsic body systems presenting as shortness of breath and dissipation of the body’s defensive ability”

The classic further encourages its readers to observe the following:

  1. Avoid protracted exertion
  2. Avoid over exertion
  3. Avoid exertion during period of hunger or fullness

Protracted Exertion – Theories on heal preservation hold that any protracted exertion can bring harm to the body:

“Protracted walking leads to fatigue of the muscles resulting in injury to the muscle and tendons while protracted standing affects the skeleton and injures the bones.”

Protracted physical activity impairs the body’s resources and ability to repair itself resulting in decrease of physical ability and a reduction of nutritive aspects and quality/quantity of blood. Collectively, these impairments can ultimately impact the functioning of the endocrine system which regulates all of the body’s processes. As we age there is an increasing susceptibility to the cumulative effect of protracted exertion and older individuals should pay particular attention to observing this principle. The appearance of extensive fatigue, palpitations and shortness of breath during or after exertion are indications that it is necessary to reduce the intensity and shorten the time

Over Exertion – Refers to engaging with difficulty in physical exertion which is beyond one’s ability or power. Here, we are not referring to lesser forms of physical stress which support the growth process. Health experts, even from distant periods of history, emphasized moderate amounts of physical labor and activity. They recommend to us to “act according to our capability and to oppose exerting oneself to do anything beyond one’s capability”. A famous Chinese physician, Sun Simiao succinctly put it:

“The way to keep fit lies in the abstinence from exerting oneself to the uttermost, lifting heavy things and running fast”

“It is desirable for one to frequently engage in minor jobs, without over fatigue by work so intense as to exceed ones’s capability”

Exertion During Periods of Hunger of Fullness – During periods of hunger the body’s levels of nourishment are insufficient and as a result the ability of the body systems to respond is impaired. Body systems are more susceptible to injury both physically and functionally. During period of fullness body functions are more concentrated on the digestion of foods/necessary absorption of nutrients and the elimination of digestive by products.

Mental Strain

Mental strain is a moniker for excessive mental labor. In Chinese medicine the Heart is said to govern blood circulation and to store the spirit or cognitive aspect while the Spleen is related to the emotional aspect of anxiety. As a result, excessive anxiety consumes the nutritive aspects of the body damaging both the Heart and the Spleen. This is seen in the symptoms of palpitation, insomnia, excessive dreaming, anorexia and others.

To address mental strain or over exertion of the mind/cognitive aspects, priority must be given to be free from what the Chinese called “avarice, wild fancy and thinking when fatigued”. Contemplation within normal limits is encouraged and beneficial. Extreme deliberations for personal gain are seen to be a cause of disease:

“Being anxious for what one wishes leads to irritability while being avid of what one desires results in mental breakdown.”

Collectively this quote refers to Expectations and their moderation. Improper moderation of Expectations sets up an environment for the cascading of the emotions which lead to anger, irritability, depression and corresponding physical manifestations.

It is imperative to use the mind reasonably and to lead a regulated life. As soon as difficulty of concentration is felt after protracted reading, writing or other mental activities it is time to rest, mentally – alternate mental activities with physical work to establish a balance. Individuals whose jobs require extensive mental involvement should engage in physical exercises every day such as morning exercise, work break exercises, sports activities, gardening, hiking, etc. A moderate amount of exercise and activities constitute the best way to relieve mental fatigue and the most active measure to prevent over exertion of the mind. More recently some of the common signs indicative of excessive mental strain have be identified. These include:

  • Dizziness / Blurred vision
  • Distractibility
  • Slowing in thought and reactions
  • Inability to understand what has been read
  • Increase in the omission, repetition, incorrect spelling of words
Excessive Comfort

“Ordinary people are often told of disease from overstrain without any knowledge of disease from excessive comfort; the latter, however are more harmful.”

According to Chinese medical theory, living in excessive comfort with a failure to do any work mentally / physically or to take part in any physical activities can lead to impeded circulation, hypo-function of the body systems, depression and physical weakness. Combined, these are viewed as precursors to disease. To prevent excessive comfort the following areas can be observed:

  1. Participation in Physical Labor
  2. Participation in Physical Exercise
  3. Regular use of the Brain

Participation in Physical Labor – “The body should be exerted often but never over exerted.” Physical labor refers to many variations commonly farming/gardening, production, manual labor, housework, etc. Constant participation in moderate physical activity with pleasure is of great importance in maintaining health and longevity. When doing the physical labor caution should be followed so as to suit the nature and physique of the individual and the conditions under which the work is being done (seasonal and local environment). One should not work too long or be excessively overtaxed. The physical labor should be maintained appropriate to prevent disease especially that which results from excess comfort.

Participation in Physical Exercise – Many activities can be included in the category of Physical Exercise – Walking, running, swimming, biking, weights and general fitness exercises. All of these have the common goal of building and maintaining the physical strength and avoidance of excessive comfort. Regardless of the type of exercise, there is a simple key to success, Perseverance.

Regular use of the Brain – “The mind must not be kept idle otherwise it will become as dead trees and cold ashes”. It is important to use the brain regularly, to think normally to nourish the mentality – this is especially emphasized for older people. It is important to continue to study and learn to ensure a sufficient supply of nourishment for the brain – nourishment in this sense refers to both information and nutrients.

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