Developed nearly 5000 years ago in China, qigong integrates methods of body movement, muscle relaxation, meditation, and respiratory exercise to improve physical, emotional, and psychological health. Proponents of Traditional Chinese Medicine contend that qigong works to promote a healthy, balanced flow of energy – called “qi” – within the body. Many believe that a disturbed or blocked flow of qi produces discomfort and illness within an individual; conversely, with a balanced, free flow of qi, one is believed to be in better health (1) (2).
There are many interpretations on the relationship between qigong and tai chi (or taiji), as both are mind–body–spirit integrative exercises (3). Static qigong refers to meditation in sitting, standing, and lying-down postures. These are the most fundamental, and therefore the most essential qigong training methods. Dynamic qigong refers to moving meditation, which can take on many forms (4). With many variations of “external qigong,” a professionally trained instructor directs the experience to a recipient (5). However, one might also practice “internal qigong” by oneself.
In several small studies, regular qigong practice has been shown to provide long-term benefits for patients with hypertension (6), fibromyalgia (7), chronic fatigue (8), tinnitus (9), and other chronic medical illnesses (10). It appears to have “dose-dependent” positive effects on sleep quality and climacteric symptoms in perimenopausal women (11). It may also have specific health-preserving effects, as it improved muscle endurance, waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), and body mass index (BMI) in middle-aged women (12).
Qigong also improves respiratory function and activity tolerance in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (13), cardiorespiratory function and expiratory capacity in patients with hypertension (14), and reduced stress levels with improved sleep quality, activity levels, immune response, and balance in older adults (15) (16) (17). As a physical activity, qigong along with tai chi can be considered a low-intensity exercise, and as such may be beneficial in cardiopulmonary rehabilitation (18) (19). Data on qigong's effects on depression are inconclusive (33).
Earlier in vitro and animal studies in China using a form of external qigong suggest it can inhibit cancer cell growth. However, these studies are not reproducible due to variety of methods and practitioners (23). One study even found qigong to be effective in attenuating lymphoma growth in mice (24). More recent studies also indicate these effects in various cell lines, but the inability to specifically qualify and quantify the delivery of qi in these studies poses some basic challenges when evaluating qigong in this way. (25) (26).
Recently, qigong has been found to be an effective complementary therapy for cancer patients. Clinical studies have found that it positively affects psychological and emotional symptoms including anxiety, mood, depression and quality of life (1) (20) (34). Qigong has also demonstrated effectiveness in ameliorating physical symptoms experienced by cancer patients such as pain, numbness, dizziness, fatigue, inflammation, and cognitive function (1) (21) (22).
Preliminary findings suggest that it may help reduce upper limb lymhedema in breast cancer survivors (35).
More research is needed to not only confirm these findings, but to more fully elucidate the mechanisms by which qigong exerts its positive effects.
Patients should be aware that qigong is not a cancer treatment per se, but can be practiced to help alleviate symptoms associated with cancer.