On April 10 this year I set a new, personal record: 100 workouts in the first 100 days of the new year. (A feat that’s all the more unlikely if you actually knew me – I’m far more likely to be found in a library or kitchen than in a gym.)

Years ago, I endured a five-year bout with chronic fatigue syndrome from which I fully recovered. I wrote a series of articles about it, and a book, Gentle Medicine. My recovery was profiled in a women’s magazine (see right) because recovery was – and still is – a true rarity. I turned first to Western medicine and then later to essentially anything that helped. But what really got me over and through it was a series of classes in T’ai Chi and Qi Gong for participants sidelined by chronic illness, such as chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and cancer. They were taught by a wonderful woman in Seattle, Kim Ivy, who was experienced in teaching the less than fabulously fit or consummately healthy. (The Chinese refer to the life force energy as “Qi,” also sometimes spelled “Chi.”)

A friendly, positive black belt in every martial art known to woman, and a longtime yoga devotee, Kim had experience teaching at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital, in their pain clinic. She turned out to be a perfect fit for those of us who weren’t strong enough to do regular exercise. I remember the classes with Kim vividly, and most of all how much I enjoyed her two gifts to the class: Qi Gong, which was eminently accessible, even at my sickest; and readings from the Tao, with which Kim closed each week’s class. I can’t remember now how long I took the classes for – maybe six months – but I do remember the day I realized I was no longer sick. T’ai Chi and Qi Gong, both of which “create” and “move” energy, had been my lifesavers, compassionately introduced to me and others by a great athlete with a heart for those who couldn’t keep up.

It’s been years now since I had that experience, but every once in a while I remember how great Qi Gong was. How I could do it even sitting in a chair (!). And how peaceful and useful it seemed. I wanted to find some instruction again, but no longer living in Seattle, I had no Kim to go to. And Qi Gong is a little esoteric for finding great instruction on a DVD – or so I thought. Yet I continued to miss it. That “still, small” inner voice prompted me periodically to make at least some effort to get those benefits back into my life.

The unpaid work I do with combat veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder is stimulating and rewarding, but also emotional and draining. By the end of last year, I wanted something that could help me stay strong inside despite the pull of other people’s difficult emotional states. What I was looking for, and didn’t realize it, was “fitness for empaths” – with a strong helping of internal fortitude.

As last December ended, knowing that the New Year was approaching, I got more serious about finding Qi Gong again. A chance mention turned me on to Lee Holden, who has a book and DVD called Seven Minutes of Magic: Recharge Your Body Each Day with Qi Gong. Holden is a former UC Berkeley soccer player who found Qi Gong after being sidelined by an injury, thinking he would never play again. Qi Gong both brought him his strength and flexibility back – he returned to playing a month later – and turned him on to a lifetime interest in the practice. Turns out that, while I hadn’t noticed, he’d had a series about it on PBS and was the new go-to expert on the subject.

Holden’s website has about a dozen DVDs to choose from, but my local library only had one on its shelf. It turned out to be a complete winner: Qi Gong: The Beginner’s Practice Continued. There are two workouts on the DVD, 24 minutes and 28 minutes long. They differ only by a longer, stronger warm-up. I started with the easier one, and once I got the hang of it progressed to the harder. Now I switch back and forth between them, depending on how much time I have to exercise. According to Holden, the flowing movements of Qi Gong teach the nervous system to clear stress from the body, leaving you “relaxed, balanced, and energized” — a powerful combination.

But back to goal-setting and creating momentum for the year: In mid-December, I ran across an article in the Washington Post by Ann Patchett, entitled “Resolved: Writing is a Job.” That introduced me to a key metric. Patchett wrote that a friend of hers had a yogi who believed that “whatever a person did with thoughtful consistency for the first 32 days of the year, set the course for that entire year.” Suddenly, I had my inspiration. Whatever I was planning to do, I had to accomplish for the first 32 days of 2010, ideally building the momentum that could carry me through the rest of year.

I’m no lifetime jock, and I prefer competition with myself to that with others.  So I started keeping a spreadsheet to document my progress, calling it “Good Health Habits for 2010.” I chose good habits that really resonated for me. I knew if I just kept track of what progress I made on those goals, the process itself would nudge me toward making better choices. Some people say that a good habit takes three weeks – 21 days – to establish; so I hoped that setting a goal for the first 32 days, and being consistent with it, would make the progress “stick” even better.

I tracked wake time and bed time; how I felt on waking; whether I juiced fresh fruits in the morning; how much wine, water or coffee I drank; how my stomach felt (a typically weak link);  whether I exercised, what type of exercise I did, and where (inside or outside); and whether I read the Tao daily or not – a peaceful habit much like Qi Gong. I tracked whether I was on time for appointments, and even whether I bothered to neaten or do the dishes. (All habits that contribute to internal peace and calm.) As time went on, new columns got added or dropped out, usually because I’d moved past the habit, often a bad one. I wanted to track only what mattered to me, and 2010 was going to be the year of “internal” fitness – with external, if I accomplished any, being only a byproduct, if that.

It wasn’t until about Week Two that I was able to find the Lee Holden DVD and start the Qi Gong. I alternated that with hill climbs as the main forms of exercise: 85% Qi Gong, 15% hill climbs if the weather complied. A few “moves” in the Qi Gong routine quickly became favorites: one called “Cloudy Hands,” which “clears stuck emotional energy” from the heart and “balances the emotions;” and another, at the end of the practice, that centers and grounds you. I find myself doing that at work, away from prying eyes, whenever I feel myself getting affected by other people’s stress and thrown off-balance.

Right away I started to see results. I can’t attribute it all to Qi Gong, but I surely am pleased at what the momentum started on January 1 created. Two physical ailments that have plagued me pretty much dropped right out, for different reasons. For one thing, the stuck hip I’d nursed for years, palliating with ice packs and Motrin, went away within days of starting the Qi Gong, never to return. And Qi Gong created so much energy that I could no longer drink my beloved double espresso (Cuban) with raw sugar in the morning. The digestive problems that I’d suffered for years disappeared right after I gave up coffee and its junior cousin, Coca-Cola. (Tea turns out to be fine, though not as exciting.)

I’m amazed by the benefits that just keeping track of my health habits have produced. I’ve lost ten pounds, a handful of inches, and gained true satisfaction from creating a good practice in my life. I also saw some longstanding vertigo just disappear, and I still don’t know what to credit that to – but possibly the Qi Gong as well.

The 32 days I’d set as a goal came and went. Coasting on a full rhythm of momentum, I wanted to go further. Organically, I settled on the concept of one workout a day, ideally for the year, but certainly through the first quarter of the year – which then became the first 100 days of the year. Some days I did more than one workout, Qi Gong and walking, for instance, to put extras in the bank. Other days, I wasn’t able to fit any in. But amortized over the full 100 days, 100 workouts actually happened.

The only thing that truly threw me off my game was going to an otherwise incredible gourmet eating and drinking fest known as “Camp Schramsberg” – we’re here in Napa Valley wine country after all – and Schramsberg is the (fabulous) sparkling wine served by every president since Nixon toasted Cho En Lai with it when China opened to the West. The three-day extravaganza, focusing on pairing sparkling wine with fabulous food treats from the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, found me enjoying the marvelous experience and stuffing my spreadsheet in a drawer, as it were, until it was over.

Not only did I manage to create a good habit for the first 100 days of the year, I’ve also found in Qi Gong an exercise I can enjoy sticking with, ideally for the rest of my life. And as far as whether it gave me what I was looking for in terms of  increasing my internal fortitude, I’d say: definitely. I’ve been a calmer, more centered person since January 1st, and even under strong duress have seen myself be able to keep my cool, but with compassion: Exactly what I was looking for. I’ve even turned a veteran or two onto it.

A lot of us are conflicted about New Year’s resolutions, and if, when we fail to keep them, they’ve done more harm than good. But based on this year’s positive experience of setting a goal and achieving it, I’m going to make striving for internal fitness in the first 32 days of the year a new habit, one that continues to pay benefits throughout the new year.

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  • Amy Richer May 27, 2010 at 8:06 am

    After reading your article, I decided to order Lee Holden’s 7 MINUTES OF MAGIC CD and his herbal stress relief supplements. I have a rather stressful job and a hideous daily commute so I fret about the impact these factors have on my health. I exercise often and am a “gym rat” but I don’t meditate and rarely practice yoga.
    For the last week, I have spent 7 minutes every AM and PM and agree that this is time well spent. I am even sleeping better which has been a challenge ever since entering the perimenopausal period of my life. Thanks for the great info and for turning me on to Lee! And thanks to Dr. Pat for introducing me to this fab web site!

  • b. elliott May 19, 2010 at 9:27 am

    You have inspired me with your discipline! I am going to try this practice, Qi Gong. I have some chronic pain issues from sports which I hope it will address as well as reduce day-to-day stress. Thanks.