Find an exercise rhythm for your detox

Whether you’re focusing on relieving your body of the burden of cigarettes, alcohol, meat, sugars, caffeine, free radicals, heavy metals, stress hormones, illicit or pharmaceutical drugs or environmental pollution, exercise is necessary for the detoxification systems to function at their peak.

One view of detoxification is of lying around drinking only water or vegetable juice. While a short bout of fasting can give the gastrointestinal organs a well-deserved break, daily exercise delivers a full-body service that effectively draws toxins from all the tissues.

Think of the organs directly involved in exercise: respiratory (lungs, throat, sinuses), skin (sweat and sebaceous glands), circulatory (blood taking oxygen the muscles, lymph fluid collecting waste). As we have examined elsewhere in this publication, all these systems are also key to detoxification.

People with a high level of toxicity in their bodies may find the idea of exercise daunting, especially if that toxicity has caused symptoms such as chronic illness or extremely low energy. Rigorous aerobic workouts don’t suit everyone, but for effective detoxification, daily exercise is vital. Even extremely low-impact exercises such as tai chi, walking and deep breathing can be extremely beneficial in stimulating the body to cleanse itself.


The lymphatic system — your body’s firewall

Your body has two circulatory systems: one for blood and the other for lymph. Lymph is a colourless fluid that bathes every cell in the body, and performs the essential detox function of removing dead blood cells, pathogens, cancer cells and other wastes from cells and the tissue spaces between them.

Lymph originates as plasma, which is the fluid portion of blood. As the arterial blood flow moves through a capillary bed, some plasma leaves the arterioles and flows into the tissues where it becomes tissue fluid. This fluid delivers nutrients, oxygen and hormones to the cells. Then, as it leaves the cells, it takes with it cellular waste products. Travelling through the body, what is now lymphatic fluid passes through lymph nodes where it is filtered, and lymphocytes, which are specialised white blood cells, kill pathogens.

A key difference between blood and lymph is that blood has the heart to circulate it through the body whereas the lymphatic system does not have a pump to aid its flow. This is where physical exercise comes to the fore. The primary way to stimulate the flow of the lymphatic system is through body movement. The contraction of the muscles and motion of the limbs stimulates the flow of the lymph through the capillaries toward the nodes, sweeping toxins on its way.


Exercise and your body’s detox

There is a range of detoxification processes that are stimulated by exercise.

Body temperature — you can’t beat the heat

During exercise, body heat rises as the circulatory system works to get more oxygen to the muscles. Rising body temperature may even convince your body that you are experiencing a fever and this causes it to focus on immune system enhancement — in particular, the filtering of lymph fluid to remove viruses and, at the same time, toxins.

Perspiration — getting the most from your third kidney

Sweating is another natural way the body flushes out toxins and waste. As body temperature rises, whether due to exercise, warm weather or a hot bath, the sweat glands in the skin release fluid to aid cooling through evaporation. Simultaneously, toxins collected in the fat cells just under the surface of the skin can be released through the pores with the perspiration. To improve elimination through the skin, regular exercise and hydration are the keys to stimulating sweating.

Hydration — lubricating detox organs

Adequate fluid intake is one of the easiest ways to detoxify; drinking plenty of water helps the kidneys to filter blood and flush out waste through the urine and sweat. As the body’s core temperature rises during exercise, hydration is required to replace lost fluids. Fortunately, the rise in temperature creates a powerful impulse to drink water. Without a trigger such as exercise, we can easily become dehydrated without realising it.

Gastrointestinal detoxing

Scientific studies have shown that light and moderate physical activity improves gastric emptying. Strong muscles in the abdomen and pelvis also help to ensure the intestines empty efficiently. A variety of exercise styles can aid the gastrointestinal tract in digesting food and removing waste — these include abdominal strengtheners such as Pilates and sit-ups, twisting stretches that massage the internal organs and bouncing activities such as trampolining, which encourages organs and muscles to release fluids and free up tensions.

Respiration — take a deep breath

The respiratory system takes the brunt of environmental pollution every day — some of it even self-inflicted or second-hand through inhaled exhaust, cigarettes, aerosols and incense. Fortunately, lungs are also extremely adept at cleansing themselves before toxins enter the bloodstream. Deep inhalation and thorough exhalation encourage the airways to expel even deep-rooted toxins such as tar. The most natural way to achieve this is through aerobic exercise, which demands the lungs supply the bloodstream and muscles with oxygen and get carbon dioxide out. Focused deep breathing, especially yogic pranayama exercises, specifically promotes respiratory health.

Cortisol and adrenalin — self-made toxins

Stress triggers the body to release adrenaline and cortisol, the primal flight-or-fight response. While these hormones can provide the energy to meet a deadline or make dinner for the kids after a long day, they build up in the body and can cause chronic disease. Many types of exercise have been proven to relieve stress by releasing physical energy and short-circuiting the mind’s continual whirl of thoughts and worries that prolong stress and anxiety.


Weathering Withdrawal

Detoxing, especially from addictive chemicals like nicotine, alcohol and caffeine, will bring on very real withdrawal symptoms, ranging from slight discomfort (such irritability and headache) to severe distress. Fortunately, exercise has been proven to stave off some of the effects by shifting the nervous system balance away from the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for triggering the fight or flight, toward the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms and quiets the body


Which workouts work?

Fundamentally, there are two exercise types: aerobic (focusing on lungs and cardiovascular) and anaerobic (resistance or strength training). “Aerobic” literally means in the presence of oxygen. Aerobic exercises increase heart rate and breathing over a sustained period. In general, any activity that allows oxygen to release energy through metabolism and that is performed at a low to moderate intensity for more than 90 seconds is usually considered to be an aerobic activity. Aerobic exercise increases the body’s need for oxygen and requires the heart and lungs to work harder. Within the aerobic exercise field, certain styles of exercise particularly support lymphatic circulation and promote cardiovascular stimulation. Aerobic exercise will generally get the entire body moving, encouraging lymph circulation and increasing body temperature to induce perspiration.

On the other hand, “anaerobic” means in the absence of oxygen. Any activity where energy is produced without oxygen and is performed at a medium to high intensity level for less than two minutes is usually called an anaerobic activity. Examples of anaerobic exercise include weight lifting and sprints. Anaerobic training works with high intensity on particular muscle groups at a time and does not necessarily increase heart rate dramatically. While this sort of exercise is important in building muscle mass and promoting general physical fitness, it is generally not the focus during detoxing programs. However, core-muscle-strengthening anaerobic exercises such as Pilates and some yoga styles help massage and stimulate internal organs and promote effective evacuation through the digestive tract so are especially applicable to successful long-term detoxification.



If, as for some people, detox for you means a water or juice diet, adding exertion to a reduced energy intake may cause light-headedness and other ill-effects, so any exercise during a fast should be extremely gentle. However, if you’re eating plenty of calories in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables, mid-intensity aerobic exercise will encourage cleansing of the blood, lungs, lymph and bowel — exactly what you’re aiming to achieve.


On the rebound

If you ever thought gravity may be out to get you, rebounding (or mini-tramp exercise) is here to change your mind. As your body bounces, the force of gravity decreases then increases within the body, causing a dramatic shift in the lymphatic tissue and cells. A weightless state is achieved at the top of each jump and then at least double the force of gravity at the bottom. The upward bounce against the downward pull of gravity closes the millions of one-way valves that regulate the flow of lymph fluid. Moving down again releases pressure in these valves, causing a surge of fluid. It’s estimated that rebounding may increase lymph flow by 15 to 30 times. Rebounding is also an effective exercise to dispel constipation because, as the intestines gently rise and fall, it enables them to change from their usual positions, freeing up tensions and releasing fluids.

A quick guide to your rebound routine


  • Start with a small movement — some call this a “health bounce”. Leave your toes on the trampoline while only your heels bounce up and down and don’t actually leave the mat.
  • After warming up, try a slightly stronger movement — the “aerobic bounce”. Stand in the centre of the trampoline and start marching in place with one foot leaving the mat at a time. When you feel comfortable, work your way up to jogging in place, either lifting your knees one at a time in front of you or kicking your feet behind you. It’s not necessary to wait for the mini-tramp to bounce your legs up — move at your own speed.
  • A jump in which both feet leave the mat is called the “strength bounce”. The vertical loading of acceleration, deceleration and gravity increase in relation to the height of the jump. This sort of exercise still aids lymphatic movement but also incorporates cardiovascular exercise that may increase body temperature and induce perspiration. Try including star jumps, knee lifts, shadow boxing and twists.
  • Bouncing while sitting will also promote lymphatic movement and can support abdominal, core and back strength.

* Work your way up to 30 minutes a day. If you feel unstable, use a chair back to hold onto as required or look for a mini-tramp with a stabiliser bar.

Other forms of jumping have similar effects on the lymphatic valves, such as skipping with a jump rope. Jumping also strengthens the lower abdomen, a region that is often neglected by sit-ups, which tend to strengthen the upper and middle abdomen.


Ancient energy

By boosting circulation and metabolism through deep breathing and yoga postures, yoga accelerates the result of any detoxification program. Yoga is dealt with extensively elsewhere in this publication, so we won’t dwell on it further here. Another ancient form of exercise we will examine, though, is qi gong.

Qi gong (pronounced chee kung) is a traditional Chinese health practice. According to traditional Chinese medicine, good health results from a free-flowing, well-balanced energy system. Various forms of qi gong techniques have been practised for thousands of years to balance energy flow.

The words qi gong are a combination of qi, meaning breath of life or vital energy, and gong, meaning the skill of working with, cultivation and achievement. Qi gong consists primarily of postures co-ordinated with specific breathing techniques along with guided imagery and mind-body integration. Regular practice of qi gong is believed to help cleanse the body of toxins, restore energy balance and reduce stress and anxiety. Qi gong includes exercises specifically for detoxifying or cleansing.


The Five Elements qi gong exercise


  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Breathe out.
  2. Breathe in. Spread the hands outwards with palms facing up, scooping energy with very heavy hands, bring forward and up above head, stretch the body but stay grounded, cup your palms out and think of water. Bring hands down, rounded, as though carrying a very heavy ball, at about waist level.
  3. Bend knees. Crouch down almost to the floor, keeping the back straight. Take the ball all the way to the floor and think of wood. Bring the heavy ball in your hands back up to chest height; allow weight to shift to right foot.
  4. Breathe in. Turn palms outward with both thumbs and index fingers together making a “dragon’s mouth”. Pivot the left heel, turning toes and body to 9 o’clock, and push hands away, thinking of fire. Slowly turn hands back towards you and carry all the heavy energy back to centre past your chest.
  5. Breathe out. Push to the right, with weight on left foot, and pivot right heel for toes and body to turn to 3 o’clock, turning hands outwards (as before) making another dragon’s mouth with both thumbs and index fingers and think again of fire. Allow the left arm to circle upwards and across the body, pulling the energy apart above your head, making a big scoop as if holding a very big ball again. Turning your torso and both feet back to centre, allowing your arms to cross at the wrists, palms forward, at chest height, sink a little with bent knees, lower hands and think of earth.
  6. Breathe in. Lower hands a little more, wrists still together, then scoop a ball of energy. Lift hands upwards and above your head, as if holding a small ball, straight, weight on left foot and right toe and think of metal.
  7. Breathe out. Allow hands to slowly fall, right heel back with foot and body back to centre, allow hands to continue down in front of the body, crossing the wrists again as they continue to go down to your sides, sink your body a little, knees bent.

Do this sequence three more times, getting slower each time, until the last is as slow as you can possibly breathe.


Surf’s up

Swimming combines cardiovascular, strength and flexibility components. Muscles throughout the body are stretched and constricted, encouraging lymphatic flow. The body constantly changes attitude and pitch, allowing the digestive organs to expand and contract freely.

However, swimming pools are generally heavily chlorinated and the body may absorb some amounts of chlorine, increasing its toxic load. Shared pools can also contain viruses, bacteria and toxins that the lymphatic system will have to work to neutralise.

Swimming in non-polluted ocean water capitalises on the detoxifying benefits of swimming as well as some added bonus effects. Ocean water is thought to closely resemble the body’s interstitial fluid, so it can be easily absorbed through the skin and help to hydrate the body. The naturally occurring salts in seawater can also help to replace nutrients and minerals lost through sweating.

Ocean water is also a natural form of hydrotherapy — the water is generally cooler than body temperature and when the body is immersed this temperature change causes vasoconstriction (the tightening of the blood vessels). As the body heats through exercise, the vessels then dilate again. This natural action of constriction and dilation dramatically boosts blood circulation. At the same time, the lymph is also being encouraged to flow by the external massaging actions of the ocean waves.


Oldies but goodies

Get your jog on

Running is the original aerobic workout; it exercises the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, boosting body temperature and encouraging a good sweat. Running in the great outdoors also offers the opportunity to get fresh air circulating, but for city-bound joggers, the risk of ingesting air pollution can counteract the detox effect.

Spinning up a storm

Cycling provides a good cardiovascular and muscular workout and offers an opportunity to escape the smog if you opt for the real thing rather than a gym-bound machine. In either case, cycling also strengthens the abdominal core.

Sunday stroll

You’re probably already doing it every day. Though it may be considered a mild form of exercise, a gentle walk is the ideal activity to do during a fasting detox. A brisk 30- to 45-minute walk, especially on a warm day and in hilly areas, can certainly stoke a sweat-inducing fire.

Abdominal exercises

Crunches and sit-ups strengthen the muscles around the key elimination organs: stomach, colon and intestines. So when it comes to helping your body move waste, rippled abs aren’t just for show.


Deep breathing exercises

India’s Ayurvedic system of health utilises pranayama breathing techniques to settle, balance and detoxify the body. Deep breathing brings fresh oxygen to the cells, awakens the nervous system and sends blood to the brain, lungs and stomach. Breathing techniques enhance your body’s ability to eliminate toxins because detoxification is directly related to the delivery of oxygen to cells and the removal of carbon dioxide. To aid digestion, take a few deep breaths before each meal.

Pranayama 1


  1. Stand comfortably with feet shoulder-width apart. Stretch the body out fully with arms raised, then drop your arms and place hands gently over your abdomen at the bottom of the ribcage, fingertips just touching above the navel.
  2. Bring complete awareness to the expansion and contraction of the diaphragm as you breathe normally.
  3. Breathe in through the nose, feeling your rib cage expanding to accommodate full movement of the lungs. Try to fill the bottom portion of the lungs first, allowing them to swell toward the top. Feel the rising of the diaphragm as the fingers move apart.
  4. Breathe in for a slow count of four, then hold for a slow count of four.
  5. Exhale for a count of four, deflating the lungs from the top down. Breathe out long and steadily. Concentrate on the exhalation, allowing it to be as complete as possible.
  6. Pause, with lungs completely empty, for a count of four before once again inhaling.
  7. Continue with this rhythmic rising and falling, allowing the breath to feel easy and unrestricted, for 10 cycles, then allow yourself to return to natural, relaxed breathing.

Pranayama 2


  • Sit back on your heels in a kneeling position. Place your palms on your knees, keep the back straight and close your eyes.
  • Exhale forcefully and rapidly through the nose in quick succession, pulling the stomach in towards the spine as you exhale. Inhalation will be automatic and passive between every two exhalations.
  • Perform 50 exhalations, then rest for one minute.
  • Repeat three times.

    Inspired to snooze

    During sleep, the body gets time to clean house, especially in the digestion department. One of the best ways to ensure you feel tired and relaxed enough to get a good night’s rest? Exercise, of course.

    Anne-Marie Cook writes about wellness in the forms of physical, emotional and spiritual health.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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