Two thousand years ago, the Greek physician Galen wrote that athletes, “Exert every day at their exercises and force feed themselves. Their sleep, too, is immoderate.” He quoted the physician Hippocrates, “Excess is the enemy of nature, and their practices are in direct opposition to good health.” Galen pointed out that when athletes stop exercising, degeneration sets in. Some soon die and few live to an old age. Aristotle emphasized moderation rather than excess and preached the concept of “aidos,” which included modesty, dignity, respect and the joy of the competition.
The ancient Greeks clearly understood the health benefits of exercise but also offered a warning as to the risks of excess. How much exercise is good for the body and how much more can be harmful seemed to be a controversial question that not only plagued Aristotle but our modern convention as well.
In October of 1992, the American Heart Association (AHA) added physical inactivity to its list of major risk factors for heart disease along with smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels and yet more than 200,000 deaths are reported each year from heart attacks during or immediately after exercise. The confusion continues. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests that cardiovascular health benefits are only gained if exercising between 60 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. Conversely, the Cooper Institute of Aerobic Research in Dallas, Texas reported that if you exercise above 60 percent of your max heart rate for four to five hours a week or more, you will incur a significant amount of harmful free radical damage in the body. They recommended that if you want health and longevity benefits from exercise, you must exercise below 60 percent of your max heart rate (max heart rate = 220 - age). This controversial study brought to light the same question that haunted the Greeks: how much exercise is healthy and how much more will be harmful?
One thousand years before Aristotle touted moderation and concept of “aidos,” the scholars of Ayurvedic medicine were writing their first textbooks that decreed the appropriate amount of exercise ideal for optimal health. Like Aristotle, they agreed on moderation but also listed excessive exercise as a major cause of disease.
Ayurvedic medicine, although in its infancy here in America, has over 300,000 Indian doctors in the All Indian Ayurvedic Congress, making it the largest medical organization in the world. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word derived from the root words “ayus,” which means life, and “veda,” which means knowledge. Over time, Ayurveda became known as the science of life. With regard to exercise, one should only exert to 50 percent of their capacity. More than that for an extended period of time would breed excess, exhaustion and ultimately the onset of disease, according to Ayurveda.
Nasal breathing techniques were offered to monitor the appropriate amount of exercise. If one had to open the mouth and huff, puff and pant to perform a certain task, than the exercise would be incurring stress rather than reducing it. Interestingly, lifespan was predictably lengthened by minimizing the number of breaths taken in one’s life. In a preliminary study comparing mouth and nose breathing during sub-maximal exercise, breath rates were reduced from 50 to 14 breaths per minutes using mouth and nose breathing, respectively. In the same study, brain wave activity showed a significant increase in alpha wave production and brain wave coherence during nasal versus mouth breathing exercise, indicating that a meditative calm could be supported during vigorous exercise stress.
Go for a walk and breathe through your nose both during the inhale and exhale. Count how many steps you take for one complete cycle of inhale and exhale. Maybe you will take four steps on the “in” breath and five steps on the “out” breath for a total of 11. Keep trying to breathe deeper, longer and slower as you walk and breathe through your nose. The number of steps per nasal breath goal (exhale steps plus inhale steps) is 20.
When not counting steps, use the comfortable rhythm of the breath through the nose to govern your pace. If you have to open your mouth to maintain a certain pace, than slow down until the nasal breath is once again comfortable. Within a few short weeks, you will see your ability to breathe calmly during exercise stress dramatically improve. Without the strain of a “workout,” exercise becomes an enjoyable experience that imparts an experience of calm during a once stressful workout. The ability to remain calm during vigorous activity can become a model for handling many of life’s stressful situations. In Ayurveda, it is called the co-existence of opposites, where silence and activity exist simultaneously.
To offset the stress of conventional exercise, antioxidants and anti-inflammatories are commonly used. In Ayurveda, botanical medicines are targeted at strengthening the individual rather than eradicating symptoms. Herbs like ashwaganda, boswella, turmeric and shilijit are all traditional Ayurvedic herbs aimed at restoring a fundamental balance that enables the body to heal and repair itself.
In a world where 80 percent of all disease can be attributed to stress, it is not surprising that we are attracted to the Ayurvedic herb, ashwaganga. Ashwaganda is a small evergreen perennial shrub that resembles a large erect potato plant and grows to 1.5 meters tall. It is found in dry areas of India and as far west as Israel. Although all parts of the plant have been traditionally used for medicines, the root is most commonly used today.
Numerous studies have exhibited its anti-stress adaptagenic properties, many of which demonstrated superior adaptagenic properties than that of Ginseng. In one study, ashwaganda demonstrated increased physical endurance and prevented the depletion of Vitamin C and cortisol while under stress; hence, ashwaganda in Sanskrit means “the sweat or smell of a horse,” indicating that one who takes it would have the strength and stamina of a horse (some say 10 horses!). Clinically, it is effective for improving energy and endurance before exercise and surprisingly, when taken before bed, it will ensure a deep and restful sleep.
Traditionally, Ashwaganda was used to treat general debility, arthritis, depression, chronic fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, depressed immunity, sexual debility, infertility, memory loss, breathing difficulties, hormonal imbalances and more. Today, it is becoming an effective choice for combating both exercise and lifestyle stress.
Boswella serrata, sometimes called “Indian Frankincense,” is a gummy tree in mountainous India. The bark and gum are used in a wide variety of conditions; however, it’s primarily use is as an anti-inflammatory associated with muscle and joint pain.
The boswellic acids in the tree resin increase blood supply to the joint capsule and counteract the effects of leukotrienes that are responsible for free radical damage, auto immune responses and inflammation. It is a clinically proven alternative to anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic drugs without the common side effects of high blood pressure, gastric irritation, heart palpitations and ulcers. Traditionally, Ayurvedic doctors enhance the effectiveness of boswella by adding small amounts of ashwaganda, turmeric and ginger (Zingiber officinale) to it. In one study, osteoarthritic pain and disability were significantly reduced by a mixture of Withania somnifera roots (ashwaganda), Boswella serrata, Curcuma longa rhizomes (turmeric) in a double-blind trial with 42 patients. Hospital studies in India are many, ranging from four to 40 weeks in length with arthritic pain relief found in 60 to 90 percent of subjects.
The root of this three foot high perennial plant is used for treating everything from a cold to a skin rash to joint pain. Ayurvedic physicians prescribe it for sprains, strains, dyspepsia, hemorrhage, pain, injury, jaundice, hepatitis, flatulence, abdominal bloating, feelings of fullness after meals, loss of appetite, liver and gallbladder complaints, headaches, abdominal pains, chest infections, fever, diarrhea, amenorrhea, "blood rushes" and colorectal cancer. Topically, due to its vulnerary properties, turmeric is used for analgesia, bruising, sprains, inflammatory skin conditions and infected wounds.
Turmeric is rich in potassium and iron, which supports optimal muscular activity. It contains volatile oil and diarylheptanoids, including curcumin, which shows evidence of anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic activity and helps muscles repair after exercise. Curcumin can have bile-stimulating, liver-protectant, antioxidant and anticancer effects. Aqueous extracts also show some evidence of hypotensive effects and antispasmodic activity.
Turmeric is both an adaptogen as well a bio-protectant. It seems its primary role is to protect many systems of the body from the degenerative effects of stress and, by doing so, eliciting a powerful healing and preventative effect.
Out of the 2000 Ayurvedic herbs described in the Indian Materia Medica, this is the only one given the recognition as “panacea.” Shilijit is sometimes called Bitumen or commonly, Mineral Pitch. It is found in the Himalayan mountains side, where one of the local usages is for high altitude breathing ability. Although the process is not fully understood, it is believed that the porous fulvic and humic acids in shilijit carry herbal compounds and oxygen deeply into the tissues of the body. These porous carrying cavities also hook toxins and escort them out of the body. This process is rare and is known a “Yogavahi” or bio-availablity enhancer. Traditionally, this distinction means it will enhance the effectiveness of any other herb or food it is taken with.
Shilijit is an adaptogen or rasayana, which means it is a deep rejuvenative. Studies have shown shilijit to dramatically lower recovery time in muscle, bone and nerve injuries along with powerful immunomodulating or immune stimulating properties. It is used in immune disorders, chronic fatigue, urinary tract disorders (contraindicated in kidney stones), memory, reduces tumors, nervous disorders and sexual dysfunction.
Exercise Injury Treatment and Prevention
When muscles contract, lactic acid is released at the contraction site. Under normal circumstances, the lactic acid is reconverted into glycogen and reused for energy. If the exercise demands are excessive, the body will be unable to reconvert the lactic acid fast enough and direct it into the blood stream for removal. The problem is that much of the lactic acid is left in the muscle. If muscles are strained repetitively or injured, resulting myo-spasms compromise blood supply to the muscle and lymph drainage away from the muscle. This lactic acid build up causes muscle soreness and predisposition to injury. This results in fibrous tissue production, which increases contractile resistance. Increased resistance in the muscle increases risk of injury, stiffness, soreness and muscle weakness.
There are many treatments for the accumulation of blood lactate and compromised blood supply in the muscles and resultant pain and stiffness. Boswella along with a supporting cast of turmeric, ginger and ashwaganda will not only act as a powerful natural anti-inflammatory, they will increase the blood supply to the muscles and joint capsules, whereby the lubrication to the muscle and joint can be re-instated. In this regard, the body will not breed dependency on the boswella formulation to relieve pain. As more blood supply is re-instated into the joint capsule, the need for boswella is dramatically reduced. Adding shilijit to the exercise equation can enhance the effectiveness of the boswella formulation because of its “yogavahi” properties.
More western studies are needed on all Ayurvedic herbs, but their time-tested clinical effectiveness merits great respect and further investigation.
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