These movements may look simple, but they unlock some major health benefits.
BY JULIA WESTBROOK
Teacher: Tai Chi, Qigong
Myth: You have to get your heart pounding and sweat glands pouring to get any kind of benefit from exercise. Fact: Even gentle forms of exercise like tai chi, or t’ai chi, and qigong can have major health benefits, according to research by Sala Horowitz, PhD, published in the journal Alternative and Complementary Therapies.
“T’ai chi and qigong are traditional Chinese mind-body disciplines that have gained popularity in the West for their health benefits,” says Horowitz. “These interrelated practices have also received attention from researchers as complementary and alternative exercises for promoting overall well-being, as a fall-prevention strategy, and as adjunct therapies for addressing a wide range of conditions.”
Not only are doctors and researchers recommending these meditative practices to their patients, but they’re also doing them themselves. Both of the authors of Ultimate Immunity, Elson Haas, MD, and Sondra Barrett, PhD, have practiced tai chi and qigong, respectively, for more than 20 years each. “More than 20 years ago, I decided to study qigong,” says Barrett. “I found a qigong master in San Francisco and studied with him to explore the energy of qi. In all this time, I’ve rarely caught a cold or the flu.”
Most Westerners are more familiar with tai chi, however its origin is in its 5,000-year-old parent qigong. As practiced in the U.S., they are often interchangeable.
What Is Tai Chi
“Tai chi, a martial art that originated in China from qigong, emphasizes long, slow, continuous movements along with breathing and meditation,” says Haas. The meditative state of this soft martial art comes from paying attention to the sequence of movement and keeping the body and mind present in the movement.
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“As with yoga, there are many different forms of tai chi,” says Sondra, “and medical research has demonstrated that when people who are 55 years or older practice tai chi, they can improve their balance, mobility, mood, and immune health.”
The Benefits of Tai Chi
Improves Balance and Prevent Falls
According to Horowitz, tai chi is recommended by the American Geriatrics Society and the British Geriatrics Society to prevent falls because it targets balance, gait, and strength. This has been found to be true in healthy seniors as well as older adults with Parkinson’s disease, adults recovering from a stroke, and patients treated for distal symmetric polyneuropathy.
Tai chi has favorable effects on cell-mediated immune parameters and antibody responses, cites Horowitz. This finding doesn’t surprise the authors of Ultimate Immunity because of its connection to balance improvement. Haas explains, saying, “If you’re afraid of losing your balance, you’ll be less likely to be physically active, which is essential to your immune health.”
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Improves Heart Health
Various studies have found that tai chi can help lower high blood pressure, lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, and raise HDL (good) cholesterol, cites Horowitz.
Improves Quality of Life
Aerobic exercise may be able to improve your mood, but tai chi takes it to the next level. Horowitz cites studies that show that tai chi improves self-efficacy (or the belief that you have the ability to achieve your goals), locus of control (or the belief that you control the outcome of your life versus uncontrolled, external forces), and hope.
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Fibromyalgia is a musculoskeletal condition characterized by pain, fatigue, and sleep disturbance. Rather than load up on painkillers and sleeping pills, Horowitz cites research finding that tai chi not only reduces the pain from fibromyalgia, but it also reduces the number of tender points and fatigue.
Improves Your Mind and Outlook
The mental benefits for tai chi include improved cognitive function, reduced ADHD symptoms, and reduced depression and anxiety. In fact, Horowitz points out that medication plus tai chi is a better treatment for anxiety than medication alone, and that adding the physical component reduces rates of relapse.
What Is Qigong?
“Qigong, the 5,000-year-old parent of tai chi, is a series of meditative movements that emphasize the cultivation and balance of qi (chi), or vital energy,” says Barrett.
Haas explains that according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, qi flows through the channels of the body called meridians and a blockage or imbalance of this energy can result in illness.
Qi is stored in three “cauldrons” in the body called the dantiens, “The lower dantien is about two inches below your navel, deep inside, and is said to be the primary storage area where qi energy can be built. The heart-center area (the middle dantien) holds another quality of qi thought to be more the emotional center, and the upper dantien, on your forehead (the third eye area), holds “shen,” or spiritual qi,” says Barrett. She explains that we can feel qi the easiest in palms of our hands.
Even if you don’t take stock in this approach, there are still benefits to the practice. (Going only by this list, it might seem like there are fewer benefits to this practice, but that’s only because in the U.S., tai chi is more commonly practiced, so there’s more data.)
The Benefits of Qigong
It’s a stereotype that the elderly population is fragile—one that those who practice qigong don’t fit into. Horowitz cites research that found that previously frail individuals improved their grip strength, heart rate, and overall health by starting a qigong practice.
Qigong is good for all kinds of pain, according to Horowitz. It reduces chronic neck pain, pain from osteoarthritis, and pain from fibromyalgia.
Stress can really crush a good day. That’s why it’s not surprising that Horowitz found that qigong, which reduces biological markers of stress, also improves mood.
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Try It: The Core Wave
Not sure if your body will agree with tai chi or qigong? Try this core wave movement from Ultimate Immunity. (Note: While this movement should be performed standing, it can be adapted to sitting or lying down.)
Bring your hands below your lower dantien (below your navel) with palms facing down. Move them toward your sides, keeping them in front of your body. Lift your arms and hands until they’re chest high. Lift and lower. Keep your shoulders relaxed and your arms soft and rounded. You may feel your back getting into the motion; go ahead and gently bend your knees and rise up. You are indeed doing wavelike movements.
Illustration Credit: Michael Gellatly