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What is exercise?

In order to exercise the body a person must work the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, nerves and cardiovascular system in a coordinated manner. There are many different approaches.
The Western way is usually to push and punish the body. The Taoist method is to treat the body with care and respect; to work the body gently and carefully.


Exercise involves putting the body under sufficient duress in order to provoke a change: muscles get larger, better endurance, cardiovascular fitness improves...
Without harming the body in the process.

The risk of heart failure was more than double for men who sat for at least five hours a day outside of work and didn't exercise very much, compared with men who were physically active and sat for less than two hours a day.

(Dr. Deborah Rohm)


People have all kinds of funny ideas regarding the nature of exercise. In fact most people are not contented to exercise. They also want to feel as if they are exercising.
Fighting against the pull of gravity at all times requires effort. The pull is enormous.
Tensing-up, struggling, exerting, straining and pushing are all common expectations when it comes to exercise. But are they even necessary?


A baby cannot stand up because it's muscular strength relative to the pull of gravity is inadequate. An adult is strong enough to stand up without realising that they are fighting gravity.
Qigong and tai chi aim to use the skeleton in a balanced fashion within the field of gravity, so no tensing or distorting the body's alignment is permitted. Hence it feels effortless.


Wanting to feel the experience of exercising is 'kitsch'. Indeed, the stronger you become, the less you even notice the effort involved.

Not forcing?

Imagine cooking food on a baking tray and the tray being caked with food afterwards. The burned-on remnants are very hard to scrub off. To scrub them would require great effort/force.
Instead, we can fill the tray with water, and leave it overnight. In the morning the remnants can be simply rinsed off and the tray washed as normal using washing-up liquid.
This is 'wu wei'. Not forcing. The job is accomplished yet exertion is not required.

The drawbacks of exercise

Not all forms of exercise are necessarily good for you. For example, running may improve cardiovascular health but is also very hard on the joints.
Lifting heavy weights can cause significant tension to accumulate and - if the muscles are large enough - adversely affect the skeleton. Most forms of exercise have pros and cons; especially sport.

Tear & repair mentality

The drawback of sport and mainstream exercise is that the emphasis is not upon good body use, optimal alignment, emotional, physical and psychological wellbeing.
The onus is upon the outcome rather than the process involved. There is the pressure to win, to succeed, to perform, to be the best. Or to look good; muscular, trim or sexy.
People push themselves and the body can suffer. Seeking to repair the body afterwards is not as smart as avoiding injury in the first place.

So, people's shoulders being up like this (lifted) it doesn't just affect their shoulders. It pushes their neck vertebrae out - which is why they get sore necks. It actually makes their chest lift a lot. It puts pressure on your heart. It does a whole lot of things that are not good for you.

(Bruce Frantzis)

Ideal form of exercise

According to the book The Blue Zones it is important to think of exercise in terms of what you can reasonably do long-term.
The ideal form of exercise is moderate enough that you can do it for the rest of your life. It needs to be joint-friendly, provide a gentle workout and be sustainable.
This sounds rather like tai chi, doesn't it?

Daily exercise

Dr Michael Greger (author of How Not To Die) recommends 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every day.
The three doctors who wrote The Okinawa Program maintain that tai chi - with its ancient origins and incredible health benefits - is the ideal form of exercise for modern people.

Isn't tai chi just slow motion exercise?
No. Some of the training methods are slow, and some are not. As the student gains greater skill, their movements become fluid and dynamic.
They move at whatever speed the situation demands. To quote The Tai Chi Classics: "If the opponent's movement is quick, then quickly respond; if his movement is slow, then follow slowly."


Page created 11 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023