Updated: Jul 24, 2020
TCM, Hormesis, and Exercise
When it comes to Chinese medicine itself, my wife always says “是量的问题 “which loosely translates to “it’s a matter of volume”. Because “凡药三分毒” (if it’s medicine, it’s three parts poison); too much can be lethal, too little no effect, just sufficient will give you maximized therapeutic effect. The same applies for exercises too; none is not helpful, too much is bad for health, but just the right amount of challenge will give you great health benefits.
This is in line with the concept of hormesis, which is not only an important pharmacological concept but also an up and coming idea in anti-aging and increased longevity. Hormesis, as seen in the picture, depicts a dose-response phenomenon which is much seen in our daily lives. Like how living in a completely sterile environment rarely helps the body deal with the real world while pathogen filled environment may be too much challenge, the Chinese concept of “肮脏吃肮脏大” (dirty eat dirty big) has some merits in helping the body adapt and be apt at fighting off infections. Not that I propose we should be as dirty as possible but there is possibly little benefit from being obsessively clean all the time. The “middle ground” may instead be helpful though the so-called “middle ground” may be closer to the left side of the dose-response curve than to the right depending on the type of stimulus we are looking at.
The dose-response curve for exercise is slightly less straight forward as one has to consider not just volume but also the intensity of exercise to reap the most benefits out of it. Low-intensity exercise like walking in huge amount has some benefits but not a lot; moderate-intensity exercises with moderate durations, often prescribed by healthcare practitioners, have significantly better health benefits; high intensity in low amount can be particularly helpful and may at times be better than moderate intensity.
So How Much Volume & Intensity
The research so far for volume and intensity of exercise is pretty much summed up by the American College of Sport Medicine’s Physical Activity Guidelines-
“150- 300mins of moderate-intensity/ week”
“75-150 mins of vigorous-intensity/ week”
“Moderate or greater intensity involving all major muscle groups for >2x/ week”
How Hormesis Works In Exercise
Without getting too technical (which I am often guilty of), you can view moderate and high-intensity exercises as a small amount of low-grade poison fed to the body. While it may not exactly be comfortable when you are doing moderate and high-intensity exercises, the body reacts via adaptations to make you resilient both physically and physiologically.
Functionally, the body seeks to become better at the exercise you do as it adapts to the stimulus. Be it on a biochemical level (increased H+ buffer to increase lactate threshold) or neurological level (increased myelination so nerve impulse travels faster to give you better mind-muscle connection and smoother movements), hormesis applies and help drive adaptation to make you stronger, faster, and better.
Physiologically, you can understand it as acute inflammation from intense exercise causing the body to upregulate it’s own antioxidant defensive system such that low-grade inflammation and life challenges, like stress, may easily be mitigated. When exercise is done intermittently but consistently, we create a constant protection wall that bulletproof us more.
This exercise hormesis effect may not necessarily be as much optimized through just moderate-intensity exercises though; infrequent high intensity may need to be included for maximal coverage. So I’ll say don’t skip out on the weekly high-intensity exercises. Do short sprints if you will, or leap onto boxes if you must, or tackle that challenging long flight of stairs if you can.
Remember though, intensity is relative to one’s fitness level; what is easy for one may be crazy intense for another. So do what you can manage and adjust the volume according to the intensity. If you aren’t sure, it’s best to get good professional guidance. Hormesis will say too much too fast too soon is as bad and non-helpful as too little too late too slowly.