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This Ancient Practice Can Improve Your Health

If our family practice doctors at Cohen Medical Associates in Delray Beach offered you a drug that cost nothing and could increase flexibility and balance, improve upper- and lower-body strength, lower blood pressure as well as cholesterol and triglycerides, reduce pain and the symptoms of depression, and relieve stress and anxiety, would you take it?

For a slow, gentle form of exercise that can be performed by almost anyone at any age in any condition, study after study has shown that qigong (pronounced “chee-gung”) and its popular offshoot, tai chi (pronounced “ty-chee”), can produce remarkable results for better health.

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.

Qigong originated in China over 5,000 years ago. It’s “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 required.

Qigong vs. tai chi

Qigong employs specific body postures, gentle movement, rhythmic breathing and visualization. The gentle, flowing qigong exercises can help calm the body and mind, as well as replenish energy depleted by day-to-day stress, poor health habits, or illness.

It has been reported to benefit such diverse conditions as depression and anxiety, headaches and other chronic pain, addictions, insomnia, and heart ailments, including high blood pressure. It also has been shown to improve circulation, balance, and muscle control. It has also been recommended for those recovering from strokes.

Tai chi can best be described as a non-competitive martial art. It entails a series of fluid, low-impact movements and breathing exercises that mimic slow-motion dance routines.

Tai chi also helps improve balance and flexibility, upper- and lower-body strength, pulse rate, immune system response, cardiovascular endurance, sleep habits, and cognitive functioning.

Studies show benefits of both

Studies done at the University of California, Irvine, have shown that the practice of qigong increases both alpha waves in the brain, which are calming, and beta waves, which help to sharpen focus.

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. One review of 33 studies also found that tai chi can relieve the pain and breathlessness associated with osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart failure, and even cancer.

The New York Times reported that “[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. It also found that participants were more likely to stick with the tai chi program over time.

Which is right for you?

Both forms incorporate slow, deliberate body movements. Qigong focuses more on individual postures along with visualization and breath work to achieve results; tai chi does, too, but practitioners don’t repeat each posture, instead flowing from one “form,” or series of postures, into another.

Some qigong exercises can be performed while sitting and even lying down, which makes it ideal for those with mobility challenges. Tai chi can also be performed by those at any level of physical condition, though the forms require the ability to stand and move, albeit slowly.

Both practices can be learned through books, DVDs, and online classes, though it might be preferable to seek out a class, at least at first. Not only will this afford you the opportunity to ask questions, but the instructor can help correct any mistakes in your performance.

Please check with us before undertaking this or any fitness regime if you have any chronic health conditions. This is especially important if you’re taking any medications that might cause dizziness or lightheadedness that could make it difficult to maintain balance.

Also keep in mind that, while these practices can confer many health benefits, including improved cardiovascular endurance, they don’t provide sufficient aerobic conditioning, so they should be supplemented with regular aerobic workouts.

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