Winter exercise: honouring your body’s seasons

Gemma Monachino, director of Evolve Health shares her knowledge on winter exercise and avoiding the hibernation trap. 

If you want your fitness to be in shape for the summer, winter is the time to get stuck in!

See more from Gemma Monachino and Evolve in the latest issue of Good .

The other morning I was up before the birds to participate in some exercise for myself and it dawned on me that winter is in fact on our doorstep. Now, I’m not a winter sports fanatic like some people but there are so many reasons to be excited about exercising during the winter months. With more than 20 years in the industry I’ve seen countless people vow to get in shape in time for the summer only to leave their run too late (daylight savings time seems to trigger a lot of motivation) and feel like a failure once again. What many don’t realise is that it actually takes a lot longer than six weeks to see the change they are promised when they start an exercise regime.

But who doesn’t fall into winter hibernation mode? And if you’re used to outdoors activities, working out in the morning or the evening is suddenly unappealing due to the darkness and cold (or the rain) and maybe you aren’t a gym bunny so now you find yourself with limited options. For most, the hardest thing about exercising in winter is drumming up the motivation to do it. I see opportunity in winter – it’s the perfect time to address the sneaky imbalances in the system that creep up on us and cause injuries we didn’t even know were coming. And it’s the ideal time to recharge.

As a personal trainer turned wellness physiotherapist acupuncturist, I believe we need to honour and pay attention to the seasons of the body which in fact mirror the seasons of our world. Many great humans before our modern day time adopted this paradigm including fifth century BC Greek physician Hippocrates. He apparently declared that a person’s health was dependent on the balance of four bodily fluids that corresponded to the natural elements of air, water, fire and earth. And that through balance, we could improve our health. Long before Hippocrates, traditional Chinese practitioners held the understanding that everything is about seasons, elements, energy, yin and yang – including our own bodies. This thought-provoking view has incredible implications for treating health issues and achieving true wellness.

Winter season is Yin in nature; it is inactive, cold, and damp. Perhaps we don’t witness some of these events so much here in the southern hemisphere but birds migrate to warmer areas, animals hibernate, the ground hardens and water freezes with the arrival of winter. The cold slows everything down and everything in nature enters a period of dormancy, withdrawal with the arrival of winter. This phenomenon also happens within our bodies. Our bodies indeed instinctively express the fundamental principles of winter – rest, reflection, conservation, and storage.

I see opportunity in winter – it’s the perfect time to address the sneaky imbalances in the system that creep up on us and cause  injuries  we didn’t even know were coming.

Winter is governed by the water element, which is associated with the kidneys, bladder, and our adrenal glands. The kidneys are considered the source of all energy (Qi) within the body according to traditional Chinese medicine. They in fact contain all of the reserve Qi in the body so that it can be used to heal, prevent illness, endure stress and change, and age gracefully. Our reserve energy can be depleted during winter so it is vital to nurture and nourish our kidney Qi.

Qi or ‘energy’ flows along Meridian lines which flow throughout the body and will impact the general function of our physical body and the wellbeing of our mental/emotional self.  With blockages along Kidney meridian lines, in addition to your mental state feeling out of sorts (anxiety, confusion, dreariness) your physical body will manifest unnecessary stress (reproductive issues, urinary problems, back/neck/throat pain). To support the water element of Winter and the reserve Qi of our being we need to detox the back body and clear out any blockages along the kidney meridian lines (the spine, hip and legs) in order for energy to flow effectively. Not over doing aerobic exercise and incorporating Yin yoga, Tai Chi, Hatha Yoga, Qi Gong and sequences of exercise that incorporate long slow deep stretching into your winter movements are recommended. With these channels clear you will feel more vibrant, confident, and calm. I have even witnessed woman who have repeatedly suffered miscarriages and changed their exercise routine to incorporate more Yin movements, go on to full term pregnancies.

Although winter is a time to preserve energy, it doesn’t mean you need to stay completely still. At Evolve, we believe winter is an excellent time to identify sub-optimal movement patterns and dedicate time to develop quality movement so you can learn to move fluently just like the element of water which flows effortlessly along the path of least resistance. Honour the seasons of the body. Remain introspective, restful, and consolidate your Qi through this season to prepare the foundations for the outburst of new life and energy in the spring.

This is the first in an online contributor series from Gemma Monachino, director of Evolve Healh, integrated health specialists providing physiotherapy, acupuncture, functional movement systems, yoga and pilates. Visit evolvehealth.co.nz for more.

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