How simple home exercises, including neck rolls and yoga poses – collectively known as ‘intelligent movement’ – can boost the immune system
Heather Thomas Shalabi, managing director of Flex Studio in Wong Chuk Hang, performs kapalbhati breathing exercises. Photos: May Tse
It’s no secret that exercise is important for overall health and wellness. But exactly how movement keeps the doctor away can often be overshadowed by its aesthetic benefits.
To gain insight into how intelligent movement helps us live well for longer, we need to take a look into the workings of one of the body’s major networks: the lymphatic system.
Why? Because moving in general stimulates the flow of lymph fluid, giving a tremendous boost to the immune system.
Our lymphatic system is a network, consisting of lymphatic vessels and nodes that remove waste from the body. Lymph fluid (a form of blood plasma) collects this waste from cells and transports it. Two other functions of the lymphatic system are to maintain fluid balance in tissues and organs and for the absorption of fats and fat-soluble nutrients.
Inactivity can significantly restrict lymph flow, and lead to a build-up of waste and toxins believed to play a role in inflammation and disease.
How exercise helps us manage this is simple: through muscle contractions and manual manipulation, lymph manages to isolate and eliminate infection and cellular waste. Deep breathing, exercise and massage, therefore, are great ways to encourage lymph flow and to maintain the health of this essential system. The movement created by combining deep breathing with stretching, such as yoga, has proved to enhance lymph circulation. Many experts also claim that jumping on a trampoline is the perfect exercise for restoration and maintenance of the lymphatic system, as it stimulates the rebound of lymph fluid with low-impact, repetitive action.
To better understand the lymphatic system, we need to look at its finer workings. The system consists of organs – lymph nodes – a fluid called lymph and transportation vessels. It is similar in many ways to the blood circulatory system, in that it is an extensive network of vessels that traverse almost all our tissues, allowing for movement of lymph fluid.
This fluid drains through lymphatic vessels in a way that is very similar to blood returning through veins to the heart. Unlike the circulatory system, however, lymph has no direct propulsion of its own. Lymphatic fluid moves through the vessels by being squeezed when we consciously use skeletal muscles or move smooth muscles through breathing or other involuntary actions. The efferent – or “outward moving” – lymph vessel walls and valves also facilitate the movement of lymph once the nodes have filled with fluid, and prevent lymph from travelling backward.
Luckily, there are simple exercises you can do each day to stimulate lymph flow and hopefully stave off illness:
Neck rolls: stand or sit tall with arms by your sides. Gently bend your head left, chin tilted down, shoulders relaxed. Slowly roll your head clockwise; complete a full circle. Repeat as desired, changing direction halfway.
Pelvic tilts: lie flat on your back, feet hip width apart, knees bent. Flatten lower back against the floor and tilt spine upwards – abdominals are in a C-curve. Lower and repeat several times.
Single leg circles.
Single leg circles: Lie on your back with legs straight. Raise right leg high and straight as possible. Ensure abdominals are engaged and lower back pressed firmly into the floor. Make several small, clockwise circles in the air with toes pointed. Repeat in reverse direction and then with other leg.
Forward bend (uttanasana).
Forward bend (uttanasana): Stand straight, arms by your side, feet close together. Raise arms to the side and slowly bend forward and down, from the hip. Bend knees if you can’t touch the floor with straight legs. Nod your head yes and no. Breathe. With abdominals engaged, slowly and mindfully rise to standing.
Cleansing breath (kapalbhati breath): Sit tall in a comfortable cross-legged position, forcefully exhale repeatedly through the nose (strongly contracting the stomach) and keep a steady pace. The ideal number of rounds is 500 exhales (per day) but start with increments of 100.
Lifting kettlebells: Holding a kettlebell in both hands, squat with legs wide and with back as straight as possible. Hold for several seconds, slowly stand to straighten, lifting the kettlebell to shoulder height or higher. Repeat several sets.
Find your lymph nodes: The major node clusters are in six areas, concentrated in rotational joints or the thoracic area, where involuntary breathing movement occurs. In the case of an infection, nodes swell – so-called swollen glands – due to a build-up of lymph fluid, bacteria or other organisms.
• Cervical region: nodes are along the lower border of the jaw, in front of and behind the ears and deep in the neck along larger blood vessels, draining skin on the scalp, face, tissues of the nasal cavity and pharynx.
• Axillary region: under the arms, near the surface of the skin and deeper in the chest tissue. They receive lymph from vessels that drain the arm, walls of the thorax, breast and upper walls of the abdomen.
•Inguinal region: nodes here receive lymph from the legs, the outer portion of the genitalia and lower abdominal wall.
• Pelvic cavity: mostly along the paths of blood vessels within the pelvic cavity and receive lymph from lymphatic vessels in the area.
• Abdominal cavity: nodes occur in chains along the main branches of the arteries of the intestine and abdominal aorta.
• Thoracic cavity: between the lungs and along the windpipe and bronchi.
• Drink six to eight glasses of purified or filtered water per day. Hydration helps maintain proper lymph fluid levels.
• A weekly sauna or steam bath can help remove waste through pores, lessening the load on the lymph system.