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Chinese wisdom: walk after eating

Known in their traditional four-character form, Chinese sayings (chéngyǔ 成语), share their existence with longer proverbs, such as the one I present to you today:


( pronounce: fàn hòu bǎi bù zǒu, huó dào jiǔshíjiǔ). You can listen to it here.

Note the rythm and sonority of the proverb and the ending rhyme of the verse which makes it catchy. If I like Chinese sayings and proverbs, it's because they allow you to learn by singing in a way. All herbal formulas that we learn in school, for example, are memorized in this way. As Véronique Alexandre Journeau, researcher at the Centre de Recherches sur l'Extrême Orient de Paris-Sorbonne, has very well written: "it is not only a question of the sounds of the language itself, in tones, but also of games phonics, of sous-entendus by homophony, and of graphic games" which allow us to somehow facilitate the capture of information conveyed by its meaning. Well, what does this proverb mean then!? I'm coming there.

This proverb allows me to a keep discussing digestive issues, but from a slightly different angle, than the late December post about rice gruel (read it here if you haven't already). Literally translated, the proverb means “After a meal, walk a 100 steps, and live to be 99”. The numbers 100 and 99 should not be taken strictly for their mathematical value but rather for a relatively large quantity. Connoisseurs will easily draw a parallel with the bǎi huì 百会 acupuncture point (lit. hundred convergences), which is located at the top of the head, and which is known to treat all kinds of illnesses. Note that the proverb advises physical exercise after a meal, first point; and in the form of walking (characters 步 and 走 zǒu), second point.

« After a meal, walk a 100 steps, and live to be 99 »

Photo: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen.

Whe in China, I discovered this habit, rooted more broadly in rather older generations. Couples strolling around in the early evening (Chinese people have their diner quite early, sometimes even before 6 p.m.), hands clasped behind their backs (strangely the men rather than the women), at a speed that allowed conversation and idleness of gaze. But does this “common saying” and this habit tally with the reality of scientific research?

Before answering the question, it would be useful to understand what happens in terms of assimilation and digestion in the human body after a meal. This is not the subject of my post, but if you are interested, you can find simple and lear explanations in this video. It should also be noted that any physical activity can have drawbacks, especially if it occurs after a large meal or if the intensity of this activity exceeds common sense.

The studies whose conclusions I am going to generalize have focused on measuring the effects of the duration, intensity and also the timing of postprandial walking (after meals). But some have also studied the effect of stationary cycling rather than walking and others pre-meal activity. The analysis of the activity's impact focused on blood sugar levels and insulin production. The following points may be generalized:

  1. Physical activity after meals is beneficial to health for many reasons, including lowering blood sugar levels (mainly studied subject);

  2. The intensity of useful physical activity is reasonably light or even moderate while sometimes not or difficult to measure in the studies;

  3. The duration of the exercise can vary from just a few minutes to an hour but it seems that any activity (light to moderate) is beneficial;

  4. The timing of physical activity seems to be the most disputed point because of the formulation of each study. According to one study, pre-meal activity does not seem to bring any benefit while in another, it is just less effective. Other research shows that standing intermittently, for short durations, is beneficial compared to sitting. In another study, the fact of starting exercise 15 minutes after meals does not show any advantage in walking compared to no activity, whereas starting activity 45 minutes after meals brings about beneficial effect (measured and significant).

Postprandial physical activity has health benefits

En conclusion, il semble que le proverbe chinois « After a meal, walk a 100 steps, and live to be 99 » soit une bonne et juste incitation au mouvement. Car l’activité physique postprandiale a des effets bénéfiques pour la santé en diminuant le taux de sucre dans le sang et la production d’insuline notamment, et par ricochet sur de nombreux aspects physiologiques. L’activité peut être courte ou un peu plus longue, continue ou intermittente, facile à modérée, et peut être débuté dès la fin du repas pour une durée jusqu’à environ une heure. Que vous ayez envie de sortir de chez pour profiter du plein air…ou pas, il vous suffira d’ajuster cette activité (marche à l’extérieure et ménage chez vous par exemple) pour vivre mieux et plus longtemps. Alors, à vos baskets!

To sum up, it seems that the Chinese proverb "After a meal, walk a 100 steps, and live to be 99" is a good and fair incentive to move because postprandial physical activity has beneficial effects on health by reducing blood sugar levels and insulin production in particular, and indirectly on many physiological aspects. The activity can be short or slightly longer, continuous or intermittent, easy to moderate, and can be started immediately after the meal for up to about an hour. Whether you want to get out of the house to enjoy the outdoors... or not, all you have to do is adjust this activity (walking outside or cleaning your home, for example) to live better and longer. So...put on your sneakers or get your broom!


References: here, here, here, here, here, here, here.

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