Exercise, blood flow and brain health

It’s often the simplest ideas which are the most profound, and the apparently simple idea of ‘free flow of qi and blood’ is one of these. The concept of free flow is built in to Chinese medicine. When qi and blood are unobstructed and flow freely, we are physically and emotionally healthy.

Many things interfere with this natural flow, but the most common are emotional repression, stress and tension, and lack of exercise.

The last of these is probably the simplest to tackle. Any reasonably vigorous exercise will increase the flow of blood through the thousand of miles of major and minute blood vessels. When this happens, every part of the body is better nourished and this importantly includes the brain. There is ample evidence, therefore, that regular exercise improves cognitive function, enhancing memory and learning, and reducing the risk of brain decline as we age.

From the perspective of Chinese medicine there are two ways of optimising blood flow. One is via what is called ‘external’ exercise which places a high demand on the body and vigorously stimulates the heart and lungs, pumping blood through the vessels. Running, other aerobic exercise, and vigorous strength training are found equally in gyms and in the Shaolin-type gongfu (kung fu) martial traditions. The latter are especially good for young people who have energy to burn and may not have the inner quietness and patience for the contrasting internal exercise tradition.

This internal tradition (for example tai chi and qigong), by contrast, approaches the optimisation of qi and blood flow in a different way. The emphasis is on quietness, softness and relaxation (often in the midst of fairly demanding physical training). The idea is that it is in the nature of qi and blood to flow. If we soften, relax and dissolve any obstructions (areas of stagnation and tightness), then this natural process will take place and the blood vessels will remain flexible and open.

While it is true that we need a good blend of external and internal exercise for good health, there are some important differences between the two approaches. External exercise delivers powerful and rapid results. It vigorously moves qi and blood so that even if we started off feeling tired, gloomy or lethargic, we are likely to feel refreshed, invigorated and happier afterwards. But – dependent on fairly intense heart and lung activity – we are likely to revert to a more stagnant state within a fairly short time, especially if the underlying causes of this stagnation (e.g. stress/emotional repression) are not addressed.

By contrast, the relaxed free-going state cultivated in the internal tradition aims to optimise qi and blood flow as a more permanent default state.

This short blog was inspired by a new piece of research into blood flow to the brain in older (50-80 year old) adults. They were all ‘master athletes’ with at least 15 years of participation in endurance events and at least four hours a week of high intensity endurance training.

What the study looked at was blood flow though several regions of the brain which are found to deteriorate in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The main finding was that after ten days without exercising, there was a significant reduction in blood flow through these areas.

This doesn’t, of course, provide evidence of the superiority of internal over external exercise. What is does demonstrate is that whatever exercise we do, we need to make it a constant part of daily life. But it does also raise the interesting question that would need further research to investigate … do the blood circulation benefits of internal exercise endure for longer if they really do alter the default condition of the blood vessels?

And this research also illuminates the ancient observation of the Chinese life nourishing tradition – that irrespective of conscious bouts of exercise, above all we must keep the body moving, maintaining free flow throughout our waking hours. As the 3rd century BCE Annals of Lu Buwei said, ” The reason flowing water does not become putrid and the pivots of a door are not eaten by insects is because they move. The physical body and its qi are like this too. If the body does not move then the essential qi does not flow. If this does not flow then the qi clogs up.”

For more discussion of the health benefits of exercise and the differences between the external and internal traditions, please see my recent book Live Well Live Long.

Hippocampal and Cerebral Blood Flow after Exercise Cessation in Master Athletes was written by Alfonso J. Alfini, Lauren R. Weiss, Brooks P. Leitner, Theresa J. Smith, James M. Hagberg and J. Carson Smith and published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, Aug 5, 2016. http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnagi.2016.00184/full

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