Qi (pronounced “chee”) is like your body’s internal battery. A fundamental precept of traditional Chinese medicine, the word translates roughly to “life force” or “vital energy.”
Qi circulates throughout your body along pathways known as meridians, which connect all the organ systems. Acupuncture and acupressure help restore qi by treating specific meridian points throughout the body. Other ancient medical systems have similar concepts. In India, internal energy is called prana; in Japan it’s known as ki; in Greece it’s pneuma; and in parts of Africa it’s known as ashe.
In scientific terms, qi is similar to adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an energy- carrying chemical found in the cells of all living creatures. Like qi, ATP provides energy for everything from muscle contractions to nerve impulses. The organs most closely associated with qi are your adrenal glands, which produce energy-boosting hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
No matter the medical tradition, the underlying idea is this: When your internal battery is powered up, your body functions more efficiently, and you’re better able to fight off cold and flu bugs that come your way. But like the battery in your phone, qi requires regular recharging. This vital, internal life force is fueled by healthy lifestyle habits, from emotional strategies like building self- esteem, finding your life purpose, and reducing fear to physical habits like getting plenty of sleep and practicing deep breathing exercises.
Some signs of a qi deficiency include thyroid disorders, adrenal fatigue, irregular periods, infertility, weakness, anxiety, and susceptibility to infections.
Exercise is at the top of the list of ancient lifestyle habits that confer health benefits. But there are a number of other deeply restorative habits that are (or are becoming) widely available. I encourage you to explore these options to find ones that suit you and your lifestyle and provide the type of healing you need.
Healthy Habit #1: Yoga
The word yoga was first mentioned in the oldest sacred text of India, the Rig Veda. The fact that it is enormously popular today attests to its effectiveness. I’m a fan of this contemplative movement practice because it’s exercise with an intentional side.
Moving through the poses helps you get in touch with your body — which parts are tight, where you’re holding tension — and stay centered in the present. As a result, it improves your balance, strength, and flexibility — both physically and emotionally.
Here’s the impressive list of yoga’s benefits, according to the National Institute of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health:
- Stress relief
- Improved sleep
- Pain relief
- Reduced anxiety and depression
- Weight loss
- Improved quality of life in people who are struggling with chronic disease
If you’re new to the practice, find a good teacher for your first few classes, so you can be sure you’re doing the poses correctly. After that, you can easily follow a yoga video at home.
#2. Tai chi
One of ancient China’s early martial arts, this mind- body practice is often called moving meditation, because it’s a series of slow, gentle motions that are patterned after the movements of nature.
The practice elevates qi, allowing you to feel rested yet energized. It is a wonderful option if you’re new to fitness, dealing with or recovering from an illness, or if you have physical challenges that prevent you from moving with ease.
Traditionally, you perform the deliberate movements standing up, but you can easily do a modified seated version. Either way, it has innumerable benefits.
Research shows it can improve balance and stability in older people and those with Parkinson’s, reduce pain in those with arthritis and fibromyalgia, and bolster mood in people with heart failure and cancer. Find a class online or, even better, check your local park or senior center for group classes.
#3. Functional strength training
You might not guess that building body strength has anything to do with your brain, but it actually affects both your mood and your brain structure in powerful ways — and it’s a great way to build qi.
A study in Molecular Psychiatry found that six months of strength training improved cognition and increased the size of associated brain regions. Other research has shown it can relieve anxiety and depression.
I like functional strength training because it doesn’t require a gym membership or any equipment. You just use your body weight to build strength and fitness, by doing moves like burpees, planks, and wall sits. (Online programs can show you how to do these moves, which you can tailor to suit your fitness level.)
As with any exercise, start slowly and build strength gradually. And remember, the simple act of setting small goals — and meeting them — can be uplifting, too.
#4. Walking in nature (“forest bathing”)
Here’s a quick eye-opening exercise: Set down this book, step outside, look up at the sky, and take a few deep breaths. You feel a little different, right? More energetic, more focused, calmer, happier?
There’s something about being in the natural world, as opposed to hunched over your computer, that releases feel- good chemicals in the brain and rebalances your body’s qi. And when you immerse yourself in nature, by walking in a local park or remote forest, you reap even more benefits. The Japanese have a particularly wonderful name for this: forest bathing.
A study in the journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine found that people who strolled through a forest had lower blood pressure and levels of cortisol afterward than those who walked around a city.
If you live in a city, a walk in the park or near a body of water can serve the same purpose. Immersing yourself as best you can in the natural world can reduce stress, improve your mood, bolster creativity, and enhance the activity of your immune system, too. What’s more, it can enhance your spiritual life, by inspiring feelings of awe, wonder, gratitude, and reverence, emotions that make you feel better and can motivate you to be more generous, cooperative, and kind.
#5. Relaxation and downtime
There’s a new health problem that’s afflicting more and more people in our fast- paced culture: burnout — the most modern example of qi deficiency. In a Gallup poll of nearly 7,500 full- time employees, 23 percent said they felt burned out at work very often or always, while another 44 percent felt that way sometimes — and that feeling has real health consequences.
Burned-out employees are 63 percent more likely to take a sick day and 23 percent more likely to visit the emergency room. And Brazilian researchers found that burnout is a significant predictor of heart disease, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and respiratory problems, as well as mortality in those younger than 45.
You might have experienced this yourself. It’s something our ancestors didn’t have to contend with, but taking a page from their slower, less distracted lifestyle can give us the balance we need.
The secret: Build relaxation into your day. Go outside at lunch, sit on a bench, and do nothing. Just watch the world go by. At night, instead of bingeing the latest Netflix series, get in bed and read a novel or relax in front of the fire or light some candles and soak in the tub. The Dutch call this idea niksen. This kind of relaxation can effectively counterbalance stress, and allowing your mind to wander also fosters creative problem solving — a gift that’s stifled in our always‑on‑the‑go lives.
#6. Digital fasting
The average adult in the United States spends about eleven hours every day interacting with technology — whether it’s reading or watching something online, scrolling through social media, or listening to a podcast.
Does that sound familiar? If you’re constantly tethered to technology, you never fully relax, and that’s hard on your body and mind. You undoubtedly already know this.
In the American Psychological Association’s 2017 Stress in America survey, 18 percent of adults said technology use was a significant source of stress — and stress drains qi. Not surprisingly, technology use has also been linked to depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
So putting your phone and laptop aside for an hour, a day, a weekend, or a week can give your brain and body time to relax and rejuvenate, which allows your qi to recover as well. It also makes sense to purge your social media feeds of unsettling or irritating influences — and add uplifting ones. I did this, and it made a surprisingly noticeable difference in my day‑to‑day well- being.
Those little hits of anger and outrage add up. Protect yourself by replacing them with things that bring you joy.
#7. Sleeping (and scheduling your life) according to your circadian body clock
Circadian rhythms are built‑in physical, mental, and behavioral changes that occur naturally according to a daily cycle, like sleeping at night and being awake during the day.
In Western medicine, circadian rhythms are viewed primarily through the lens of the sleep-wake cycle. But traditional Chinese medicine takes the concept much further, linking nearly every bodily function and organ to the time of day when it’s most energized.
The 24-hour circadian clock can be a helpful guide for planning your day and for understanding why you might feel a little off at one time or another. For instance, your heart energy is at its highest from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., so that’s a good time to get together with loved ones and close friends, or to talk with them on the phone.
Likewise, your large intestine becomes active between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., making those hours an ideal time to wake up and ease into your day.
TCM endorses a slow transition from sleep to waking. Meditating or praying first thing in the morning can allow your mind and body to ease into wakefulness and set a positive tone for the whole day.
In ancient times, people went to bed when it got dark and rose when it was light. Our bodies’ internal clocks are still set to those same circadian dials, even though we routinely ignore them. But there are reasons to be more mindful about getting seven to eight hours of sleep most nights.
According to ancient Chinese medicine, you should be relaxing by 8 p.m. and sleeping by 11 p.m. One key reason: When you’re asleep, both your gallbladder, which controls your emotions and judgment, and your liver, which is responsible for emotional well- being, are undergoing repairs. When you sleep too little, both those organs suffer.
Indeed, research shows that sleep deprivation impairs your ability to think clearly, and it makes you feel cranky, irritable, and depressed, which means you’re more likely to react negatively when something doesn’t go well.
If your work or travel schedule doesn’t permit you to sleep within these hours, try to maintain the most consistent sleep schedule you can. So long as it has a regular schedule, the body is remarkably adaptable. One way to get more sleep, regardless of your sleep timing: Put your phone and devices away a couple of hours before bed and do something relaxing. The blue light emitted from screens can interfere with your natural sleep-wake cycle. That one change can help you live more in sync with your body’s natural circadian rhythms.
#8. Grounding and earthing
This therapeutic practice involves activities like walking barefoot outside, lying on the grass or the beach, or wading in a lake or ocean to do what our ancestors did naturally all the time: connect physically to the earth. The benefits, which include enhanced red blood cell fluidity (great for cardiovascular health), reduced muscle pain after exercise, and reduced stress, depression, and fatigue, derive from the fact that the earth emits electric charges that have positive effects on your body. Although research is still in its infancy, it appears that the electric charge affects the living matrix between your cells, resulting in decreased inflammation.
It couldn’t be simpler to do — and it may actually allow your body to recalibrate its internal settings and enhance your health.
Similar to grounding, crystals are lovely stones taken from the earth that carry electrical energy. Although there’s no contemporary research on their effectiveness, they have been used throughout history to improve health. And while I don’t believe they are miraculous in any way or that they are an actual cure for any health issue, I do believe they have subtle health benefits. There are a number of types of healing crystals — from clear quartz, which is known as the master healer, to obsidian, which protects you from emotional and physical negativity — but the idea is to select the one that’s right for you.
You can read about the different qualities of each type and purchase one online that seems to suit your needs. Or you can choose a crystal by going into a store and holding different stones in your hand, one at a time. Many people say they can sense which one is right for them. To benefit from your crystal’s energy, you can meditate with the stone, put it in your bath, carry it in your pocket, or place various stones around your house.
#10. Rain, ocean, and other nature sounds
Research is revealing that physically connecting with the earth is healthy, and listening to its sounds can be, too.
Natural sounds have long been linked with relaxation, and now studies are starting to validate that long-held theory.
Research has shown that the sounds of streams, birdsong, and fountains improve both adults’ and children’s cognitive performance, for instance. And in a study published in Scientific Reports, researchers used fMRI brain scans and heart rate monitors to determine how various sounds affected people.
What they found: When listening to artificial sounds, like traffic and highway noise, people’s cognitive attention was focused inward, as it is when we’re worrying or ruminating, and their reaction times were slower than when they listened to natural sounds, which elicited more external-focused attention.
On the flip side, the study found that natural sounds were more likely to trigger a relaxing, parasympathetic nervous system response, and an associated drop in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels.
People seemed to reap the greatest benefits from natural sounds that were familiar, so it makes sense to find a playlist, app, or noise machine that has sounds you’re used to, whether it’s rain or waves or burbling creeks. Or, if you don’t live in a city or near a busy street, just throw open your windows and enjoy the natural, relaxing symphony outside your home.
I understand that life is busy, and it may feel overwhelming at first to adopt a new lifestyle habit — or even find a good acupuncture or chiropractic practitioner. But each of the strategies I’ve outlined above enhances qi by giving you calm, sustainable energy. And when your qi is strong, you’re better able to handle all your other responsibilities.