By Dr. Mercola
Tai Chi, a branch of Qigong, has been practiced for over 2,000 years. Qigong has an even longer history, dating back about 5,000 years.1 Originating in China, these exercises are said to balance and harness qi (also spelled chi), or "life energy," and is frequently described as meditation in motion, as the activity takes you through a set of slow, gentle movements while you focus on your breath. Just looking at it, it may seem like these exercises do little in terms of exercising your body, but appearances can be deceptive.
Research shows Tai Chi and Qigong provide many physical and psychological benefits. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it helps channel qi through your body's energy meridians, thereby improving your overall health and well-being. More specifically, studies have shown Tai Chi stimulates the central nervous system, lowers blood pressure, relieves stress, tones muscles and helps with digestion and waste elimination.
Tai Chi may be particularly beneficial for the elderly, thanks to its low impact. You can even do Tai Chi if you're confined to a wheelchair. Those struggling with chronic pain or stiffness may also benefit a great deal. More often than not, one of the worst things you can do when you're in pain is to stay inactive, as this merely weakens your muscles further, increasing rather than lessening your pain and stiffness.
Tai Chi can also take the place of seated meditation if you struggle with the sitting still part. While practicing Tai Chi, your mind is meant to stay focused on your movements, relaxation and deep breathing, while distracting thoughts are ignored.
Medicinal Movements That Are Easy and Enjoyable to Practice
Qigong can be viewed as a medicinal movement practice, combining breath work, relaxation, movement and self-massage all in one. Many who try it for the first time will be struck by how invigorating Tai Chi can be. As scientific interest in this ancient system has grown over the years, a solid foundation of research has been laid, supporting its use for a variety of health conditions.
PubMed now lists well over 500 published articles on Qigong alone. In 2010, a comprehensive review2 of health benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi was published, reviewing the psychological and physiological outcomes of both branches of practice. In all, 77 randomized controlled trials (RCT) on Tai Chi and/or Qigong published between 1993 and 2007 were included in the review, which noted the many similarities between the two practices:
"These two forms of meditative movement, Qigong and Tai Chi, are close relatives having shared theoretical roots, common operational components and similar links to the wellness and health promoting aspects of traditional Chinese medicine.
They are nearly identical in practical application in the health enhancement context and share much overlap in what traditional Chinese medicine describes as the 'three regulations': body focus (posture and movement), breath focus and mind focus (meditative components). Due to the similarity of Qigong and Tai Chi, this review of the state of the science for these forms of meditative movement will investigate the benefits of both forms together."
The featured review was led by Roger Jahnke,3 a doctor of Chinese medicine who has spent many years training teachers to bring Qigong to communities, schools, prisons and homes for the elderly. Jahnke's book, "The Healer Within: Using Traditional Chinese Techniques to Release Your Body's Own Medicine," published in 1997, promoted Qigong as a potent self-care method.
His second book, published in 2002, "The Healing Promise of Qi: Creating Extraordinary Wellness Through Qigong and Tai Chi," goes a step further, presenting Qigong as a cost-saving antidote to the current health care crisis, providing guidelines for creating a personalized "self-healing regimen for any age or medical condition."
Undoubtedly, part of the benefit comes from its mind-body influence, including its focus on meditation. Even respected conventional health institutions such as the Mayo Clinic4 and Harvard Medical School5 recommend Tai Chi for its health benefits, especially as a stress-reduction tool. This should come as no surprise considering the many ill effects stress has on your body.
Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi
So, what exactly can Tai Chi and Qigong do for your health? According to the scientific evidence, conditions that may benefit from either of these practices include but is not limited to: 6,7,8
✓ Cardiovascular disease
✓ Arthritic disease
✓ Stroke and brain injury rehabilitation
✓ Aerobic capacity, strength and coordination
✓ Falls and balance disorders
✓ Bone mineral density
✓ Shingles-related immunity
✓ Pain and stiffness
✓ Sleep disturbances
WorldTaiChiDay.org has a medical research library listing9 nearly 100 health issues for which Tai Chi may be helpful, so this is far from a comprehensive list. That said, some of the strongest evidence seems to support Qigong for conditions relating to pain and fatigue, lung and cardiovascular function, balance and coordination, stress and anxiety, and general immune function.
For example, in one study, older women with osteoarthritis who performed Tai Chi exercises for 12 weeks noticed great improvements in their arthritic symptoms, balance and physical functioning.10 Other studies have shown Tai Chi can help preserve range of motion in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, thereby reducing disability.
Patients struggling with fibromyalgia also report less pain, fatigue and depression, along with improved physical functioning and sleep after four months of Tai Chi.11 A 1999 study12 looking into the effects of Qigong on pain confirmed that, whatever the mechanism, this type of gentle exercise does have a marked effect. Here, patients aged 18 to 65 suffering with complex regional pain syndrome type I received either Qigong instruction and qi emission by a Qigong master, or a similar set of instructions by a sham master.
In the genuine Qigong group, 82 percent reported reduced pain at the end of the first session compared to 45 percent of controls. By the last session, 91 percent of the genuine Qigong group reported reduced pain, compared to just 36 percent in the control group. Anxiety reduction was also greater in the Qigong group.
Patients With Chronic Illness Benefit From Tai Chi
More recently, a systematic review13,14,15,16 published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2015 looked at Tai Chi's effect on four chronic health conditions:
• Heart failure (HF)
After reviewing the data from 33 studies, the researchers concluded Tai Chi provided at least some benefit for all of these conditions. All saw improvements in strength, balance and posture, for example, without adverse side effects such as increased pain or breathlessness. In those with arthritis, it helped reduce arthritic-specific symptoms like pain and stiffness. Most of the studies involved doing one-hour Tai Chi sessions two or three times a week for about 12 weeks. According to the authors:
"The results demonstrated a favorable effect or tendency of Tai Chi to improve physical performance and showed that this type of exercise could be performed by individuals with different chronic conditions, including COPD, HF and OA."
Qigong Helps Boost Immune Function and Lowers Inflammation
Another interesting study demonstrated that a modified short form of Tai Chi called Tai Chi Chih helped boost immune system response to the shingles virus, thereby preventing outbreaks. Indeed, a number of studies in the 2010 review found improvements in immune-related blood markers, such as leukocytes, eosinophils and monocytes, suggesting this kind of mind-body practice has a direct effect on your immune function.
Inflammation is also closely related to immune function, and studies confirm Qigong and Tai Chi help reduce inflammatory markers as well, including C-reactive protein and interleukin-6. According to the 2010 review:
"A number of studies not utilizing an RCT design have examined blood markers prior to and after Tai Chi or Qigong interventions, providing some indication of factors that might be important to explore in future RCTs … For example, improvements in thyroid-stimulating hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, triiodothyronine, and lymphocyte production have been noted in response to Tai Chi compared to matched controls.
Pre-post Tai Chi intervention designs have also shown an improvement in immunoglobulin G (IgG) and natural killer (NK) cells and similar non-RCTs have suggested that Qigong improves immune function and reduces inflammation profiles as indicated by cytokine and T-lymphocyte subset proportions … [T]hese immune and inflammation related parameters fairly consistently respond to Tai Chi and Qigong, while also providing potential for examining mechanisms of action."
The Psychological Effects of Qigong and Tai Chi
Twenty-seven of the 77 studies included in the featured 2010 review reported psychological outcomes, such as anxiety, depression, stress, mood, fear of falling and self-esteem. While most of these studies did not include psychological distress as a recruitment parameter, the findings were substantial nonetheless.
For example, compared to regular exercise, Qigong was found to have a more pronounced benefit on participants' anxiety levels. Depression also improved significantly compared to inactive controls. Tai Chi even outperformed standard psychosocial support interventions. According to the authors:17
"This category of symptoms, particularly anxiety and depression, shows fairly consistent responses to both Tai Chi and Qigong, especially when the control intervention does not include active interventions such as exercise.
In particular, with a few studies indicating that there may be changes in biomarkers associated with anxiety and/or depression in response to the interventions, this category shows promise for examining potential mechanisms of action for the change in psychological state."
Give Qigong or Tai Chi a Try
Qigong and Tai Chi are two examples of gentle, restorative exercises that help tone and strengthen your body, increase circulation and oxygen flow, and improve flexibility and balance. As noted in the 2010 review:
"A compelling body of research emerges when Tai Chi studies and the growing body of Qigong studies are combined. The evidence suggests that a wide range of health benefits accrue in response to these meditative movement forms, some consistently so, and some with limitations in the findings thus far.
This review has identified numerous outcomes with varying levels of evidence for the efficacy for Qigong and Tai Chi, including bone health, cardiopulmonary fitness and related biomarkers, physical function, falls prevention and balance, general quality of life and patient reported outcomes, immunity and psychological factors such as anxiety, depression and self-efficacy.
A substantial number RCTs have demonstrated consistent, positive results especially when the studies are designed with limited activity for controls. When both Tai Chi and Qigong are investigated together, as two approaches to a single category of practice, meditative movement, the magnitude of the body of research is quite impressive."
Indeed, researchers have suggested that doctors may someday prescribe Tai Chi to elderly patients suffering with multiple chronic diseases. But why wait? You can learn Tai Chi at home from books or DVDs, but joining a class with an experienced instructor will ensure you're doing the movements correctly and safely. Many areas now offer courses in Tai Chi, so check with your local health club or yoga studio.
Aim for a Comprehensive Exercise Program
If you're too infirm for any of these suggestions, start working on seated exercises to improve your strength and balance. See my Basic Exercise Guide for Older Seniors and the Infirm for instructions and video demonstrations. Then, as your mobility improves, keep adding to your routine to keep it challenging.
Ideally, you'll want a comprehensive fitness program that includes aerobic, anaerobic and resistance training as well. One of the most beneficial types of exercises is high intensity interval training (HIIT), which consists of short bursts of high-intensity activity followed by longer periods of recovery, as opposed to extended episodes of continuous vigorous exertion. HIIT is a core part of my Peak Fitness program, which has helped many return to and maintain good health, including folks who are well into their retirement years.
With my latest modification, just about anyone can get started on HIIT. Originally developed by Dr. Zach Bush, the Nitric Oxide Dump that I demonstrate in the video above is a slightly altered version of that. This exercise takes just three to four minutes, and should be done three times a day for best results. To learn more about the mechanisms that make this exercise so powerful, see "The Best Exercise for Aging Muscles."