Tai Chi and Qigong: Are They Right for You?
If you found an exercise that you could perform even while sitting down, would you be interested?
Suppose our primary care doctors in Delray Beach told you that this exercise could:
- improve sleep
- correct your posture
- reduce stress
- increase strength
- decrease anxiety
- relieve depression
- improve the immune system
- increase bone density
- reduce inflammation throughout the body
- improve balance and reduce falls
- increase flexibility
- improve self-esteem
And suppose we told you that this exercise might have also a positive impact on the:
- cardiovascular health
- pulmonary disease
- back pain
- Parkinson’s disease
- blood pressure
Would you want to know more?
What They Are
You may not be familiar with qigong (pronounced “chee-kung”), but you’ve almost certainly heard of tai chi (“ty-chee”), the ancient form of Chinese exercise.
Qi (sometimes spelled “chi”) means breath or energy, and gong means work. So qigong means energy or breath work, and tai chi is the moving or exercise form of qigong. Unlike tai chi, however, qigong is not related to martial arts.
Qigong originated in China over 5,000 years ago. Its “newer” cousin, tai chi, has been practiced there for over 2,000 years. Although originally connected to Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian influences, as practiced in the United States today they are largely secular; that is, no particular religious beliefs are involved.
Basically, the difference between tai chi and qigong is that the latter is easier to learn: a set of simple, repeatable movements, versus the long, complex set of sequences of traditional tai chi that can take a long time to learn. Qigong’s postures and breathing techniques are simple enough that anyone, at any age and in any state of health, can learn them, quickly and easily.
And unlike tai chi, qigong may be done standing, sitting, or even lying down, depending on the exercise. It can be done anywhere, indoors or outdoors. Tai chi is often performed outdoors, both to connect with the energy of nature and to allow enough room for the movements.
What the Studies Show
Studies on both tai chi and qigong have shown numerous health benefits.
One of the most comprehensive reviews of the physical and psychological benefits of the two practices was published in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Library of Medicine, which looked at 77 randomized controlled trials published in peer-reviewed journals over 15 years.
The researchers found “consistent, significant results for a number of health benefits” from the practice of tai chi or qigong, in nine specific areas:
- bone density
- physical abilities/function
- falls, balance, and related risk factors
- quality of life
- self-efficacy (confidence)
- patient-reported outcomes
- psychological symptoms
- immune- and inflammation-related responses
Other studies have shown similar results. For example, The New York Times reported, “[t]here is also quite a bit of evidence to suggest the practice can improve blood pressure. Harvard doctors who conducted a systematic review of the medical literature in 2008 found that 22 of 26 studies reported reductions in blood pressure among participants who practiced tai chi.”
The Times also reported on one 1996 trial that randomly assigned 126 heart attack survivors to either tai chi classes, an aerobic exercise regimen, or a non-exercise support group for eight weeks. The study found improvements in both diastolic and systolic blood pressure (the top and bottom numbers) only in the tai chi group.
Other studies have demonstrated the cardiac benefits of tai chi, including reducing levels of total cholesterol and triglycerides, increasing levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and slowing the heart rate.
Another review of 33 studies found that tai chi may relieve the pain and breathlessness associated with osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart failure, and even cancer.
Which Should You Try?
As far as the health benefits are concerned, the NIH review pointed out that many of the 77 studies examined didn’t differentiate between qigong and tai chi, tending to treat them as nearly the same type of exercise. So it’s difficult, if not impossible, to say which practice imparts which benefits.
It’s really more a matter of preference, lifestyle, and ability.
Dr. Vincent Minichiello, an assistant professor and integrative health physician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained to CNN that some might find the tai chi movements more challenging because you have to memorize the intricate movements, whereas qigong is much easier to learn.
“Qigong can also be practiced lying down and even through visualization,” he said, “so if you’re having a hard time moving your body, you can practice the movements by visualizing them.”
Try It Out
If you want to see for yourself what qigong is like, here’s a quick exercise:
Stand with your feet comfortably apart, tailbone tucked under. Breathe slowly and deeply through your nose (your mouth stays closed).
Now slowly reach your arms overhead (as if signaling a touchdown) and imagine you’re holding a beach ball filled with positive energy. Still breathing deeply, slowly lower your hands to chest height, then pause, breathe once more, then bring your hands to your belly, and imagine you’re guiding that positive energy into your body.
It might take a few tries before you feel anything, but eventually, you may begin to feel the energy moving. Don’t force it, though, just try to relax.
If you’re interested in pursuing either practice, you can take classes (costs average $10-$20 per class), learn from a book or DVD, or from the numerous online courses available.