According to Merriam-Webster, exercise can be an activity or a particular movement or series of movements that are done to become stronger and healthier. These activities vary widely, have differing purposes and have been influenced by cultural integrations into society. Typical exercises can be divided into categories of endurance, strength, balance and flexibility and are often combined into program routines to optimize body and organ health. Yoga, Tai Chi and Qigong are examples of some exercise forms that have become popular over the decades as our society embraces the “mind-body” connection and the psychological benefits of exercise. The focus of this blog post will discuss Qigong and the health benefits achieved with the practice of this ancient Chinese health practice.
TAI CHI AND QIGONG
Most people are more familiar with the practice of Tai Chi even though it is a type of Qigong. The practice of Qigong dates back at least five thousand years. Tai Chi practice is about eight hundred years old and is considered a martial art with more structured movements than Qigong.
The practice of Qigong has hundreds of movement variations that can be combined to form a routine for a specific intent, whereas Tai Chi follows a specific set of movements protocol. Both practices focus on what Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) describes as the “three regulations”: body focus (posture and movement), breath focus, and mind focus (meditative components) to enhance physiological and psychosocial health. Click here for an excellent summation of Qigong and Tai Chi.
Much research has been done on the health benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong, more so the former, however many consider the fact that since both focus on the three regulations, their health benefits are similar.
Qigong combines self-awareness with self-correction of the posture and movement of the body, flow of breath and stilling of the mind. This combination is thought to stimulate the body to release its own natural health recovery mechanisms. Qigong incorporates a wide range of physical movements including slow, meditative, flowing motions with the intent to enhance body function and cultivate free flowing Qi, a vital force energy or life energy that runs throughout the body. In TCM, Qi can be blocked and cause poor health states.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF QIGONG
There are many health claims for Qigong and Tai Chi. Not all of these benefits have been tested by researchers. The following list provides health parameters from randomized controlled studies. There is still much more research to be done because it is not known if there is a particular set of movements that produce better results than others nor is it known how often or what duration produces the most optimal results. The results shown here are from a variety of different studies with a variety of different Qigong movements used that were tailored for each study. Regardless, the following effects showed significant results when compared to either usual care education or no exercise control groups.
1. POSITIVE INFLUENCE ON BONE HEALTH
The skeletal system functions to support the body in an upright position, aids in movement, protects our organs, acts as attachment points for muscles, produces red blood cells and supplies us with calcium and minerals in times of need. Remodeling of bones is a continual process of breakdown and rebuilding that occurs in response to stresses that are experienced by the bones and our need for calcium and phosphorous. Bone mass reaches its peak at about the age of 30. After that our body’s job is to maintain the density and strength of the bones through the process of remodeling. However, as we age, the balance between breakdown and rebuilding becomes imbalanced.
When the breakdown of bone occurs more than bone rebuilding, it leads to a porous and weaker bone state called Osteoporosis.
(Picture source: verywellhealth.ca)
Osteoporosis is the condition where the bones are porous and weak. Osteopenia is a term used for more mild weakness of the bones, but signals impending osteoporosis and the possibility to regain strength is still a possibility. Weak and porous bones can lead to bone fractures. A bone density test is done to determine the strength of the bones.
RISK FACTORS FOR OSTEOPOROSIS
Long standing Calcium and/or Vitamin D deficiency
Long-term use of some medications and some cancer drugs
Smoking (calcium is less absorbed in the gastrointestinal system)
The risk for osteoporosis increases with age. At menopause, women may lose bone quickly for a few years before it slows downs. Men lose bone at a slower rate, but by the age of 65 to 70 years, both men and women are losing bone at the same rate.
The following YouTube link teaches you about osteoporosis. It has some great illustrations, but the end part may be a bit technical. If you want to know more about osteoporosis, click here.
EXERCISE AND BONE HEALTH
Weight bearing and resistance exercises are the main recommendations for building bone strength. Qigong practices do not involve resistance and utilize minimal weight bearing such as gentle knee bends, yet some studies have reported an increase in bone mineral density in post-menopausal women who practiced Qigong.
2. LOWERING OF BLOOD PRESSURE
WHAT IS BLOOD PRESSURE?
There is a constant pressure exerted on the walls of your arteries by blood passing through with each contraction and relaxation phase of heart muscle contractions. This force exerted against the blood vessel wall is known as blood pressure. Your blood pressure is not constant. It responds to the body’s needs and changes with movement, emotions, and posture changes.
When your blood pressure remains at a high level unchecked, it can cause damage to the artery walls and lead to stroke, heart disease, kidney dysfunction and vision loss. In Canada, 9 in 10 people will develop high blood pressure (hypertension) in their lifetime and 17% of those people will not even know they have high blood pressure. You can read more about hypertension by clicking on this link Heart & Stroke Foundation.
EXERCISE AND BLOOD PRESSURE
Hypertension causes are multifactorial in nature. There are some things you cannot change such as ethnicity or age, but lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, sodium intake reduction and exercising have been shown to help reduce blood pressure. Traditionally, aerobic-type exercise has been promoted to strengthen the heart such as walking, bicycling, running, hiking, dancing and swimming. Hypertension Canada suggests you be physically active for about 30-60 minutes on most days of the week. Newer research suggests that exercise with weights and resistance bands also has a blood pressure lowering effect.
Since stress is a contributing factor for high blood pressure, measures for stress reduction can be added to your exercise routine. Qigong involves enhancing relaxation through breath work and mindfulness and multiple studies have shown Qigong to have blood pressure lowering effects when compared to control groups who participate in aerobic exercise and groups who are inactive.
Keep in mind that the decrease in blood pressure requires time to see effects so setting up a daily routine that you can stick to is important.
3. DECREASES IN FALL RISK
After the age of 65 the risk of falling increases. The Public Health Agency of Canada relates that 20-30% of seniors experience one or more falls per year and that one third of the seniors hospitalized for a fall will enter a long-term care facility. Environmental causes range from trip hazards such as area rugs to a lack of stability devices such as handrails. Physical changes with age that increase a fall risk include poor eyesight, decreased hearing, health conditions that affect mobility and a natural decrease in the body’s ability to sense body position creating balance and spatial awareness issues. Qigong has been shown to help the body’s navigation system. Through improvement of balance a decrease in falls was seen in multiple studies.
4. IMPROVES MENTAL HEALTH
Our body is capable of handling stress in times of need giving us the “fight or flight” response of increased hormones and chemicals required when you need to run from that growling bear. However, bears are not a common stressor in our everyday life. Bills, family, work and worry can all induce a mild stress response. Over time, continued stress can cause us to become ill. Some symptoms associated with the effects of unchecked stress responses include:
D) Memory and concentration problems
E) Digestive problems
F) Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke
G) Problems with sleep
H) Weight gain
Suggested methods of stress reduction include:
a) Eating a healthy diet
b) Getting regular exercise
c) Establishing a regular sleep schedule
d) Practicing relaxation techniques
f) Enjoying hobbies
g) Including laughter in your life with friends and family
h) Prioritizing tasks
i) Seeking professional advice
See Stress Management from the Mayo Clinic
Qigong’s integration of movement, breath work and meditative practice serves to calm the mind and has been shown to decrease the effects of an overactive stress response such as anxiety and help improve the symptoms of depression. Studies have used blood tests to reveal that blood cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine levels associated with the body’s chemical response to stress were lowered with Qigong practices.
5. STIMULATES THE IMMUNE RESPONSE
Our body’s various immune cells are continuously removing foreign substances, old or senescent cells, bacteria, and viruses in order to keep us healthy. It has been shown in research that some of these cells such as leukocytes and monocytes increase, and that the body’s antibody response is also increased after one month of Qigong practice.
Qigong practice has also been shown to improve pain and movement capability and therefore can help the following:
6. ARTHRITIS AND FIBROMYALGIA SYMPTOM IMPROVEMENT
7. IMPROVEMENT OF QUALITY OF LIFE
OTHER BENEFITS MAY INCLUDE
1. Increases mental clarity
2. Lessens chronic fatigue symptoms
3. Helps sleep routines
THREE POSSIBLE REASONS WHY QIGONG COULD BE BENEFICIAL FOR LYMPHEDEMA
There are no research studies focused on the effects of Qigong practice on lymphedema. However, we can look at what we know about the effects of lymphedema and what the research tells us is beneficial for managing it.
1) The risk of infection for people with lymphedema is increased: The environment under the skin is compromised as waste products build, inflammation and inflammatory response chemicals increase, and the tissue’s ability to defend itself is compromised. Some research has shown that Qigong may increase the numbers of infection fighting and waste removal cells increases with regular practice.
2) Exercise has been shown in research to neither worsen nor initiate lymphedema, but it aids lymphatic flow through muscle contractions. Qigong practice involves muscle contractions and breathing exercises which can aid lymph flow.
3) Living with lymphedema can affect quality of life and be a means of stress. Unchecked stress responses can lead to sleep and mood disturbances. Qigong not only incorporates movement, but through breath work and meditative practice can be a method of increasing relaxation and improving sleep. Additionally, it has been shown in some studies that Qigong can help decrease the long term effects of stress.
Qigong incorporates practices that can help both the mind and body and has been shown to improve quality of life through the lowering of chronic stress symptoms, improving balance as well as aiding bone and immune health. Doing some form of exercise on a regular basis helps to improve all aspects of health and prevent chronic disease. The key is to find something that is right for you, is a mix of endurance, balance, flexibility and strengthening and most importantly, something that you enjoy!
The information presented in this blog post is not meant as a means of diagnosis of conditions. It is for educational purposes only and intended to be the beginning discussion for your search in your own health journey. It is understood that you will have a discussion with your health professional before embarking on a new exercise plan.
2. Jahnke, R., Larkey, L., Rogers, C., Etnier, J., & Lin, F. (2010). A comprehensive review of health benefits of qigong and tai chi. American Journal of Health Promotion: AJHP, 24(6), e1-e25. https://doi.org/10.4278/ajhp.081013-LIT-248