How Qigong and Tai Chi Benefit the Body and Mind

An integrative medicine physician describes the health benefits and explains the difference between these ancient mind-body practices

Woman doing tai chi in a park

Once stereotyped as exercises just for the elderly, now it’s common to see people of all ages practicing tai chi or qigong, solo or in groups, in parks and public spaces across the country.

These ancient Chinese practices, characterized by their slow, gentle, and flowing movements, have been proven to provide benefits for both physical health and mental well-being, which may be contributing to their rise in popularity among wellness seekers: According to one estimate, more than 3 million people in the U.S. practice tai chi.

Dr. Michelle Loy

Dr. Michelle Loy

“In practice, when I counsel patients, I like to recommend that they get at least 150 minutes a week of cardiovascular exercise, two days of resistance exercise, and, for every decade of life, a day of mindful, joyful movement, which can include tai chi or qigong,” says Dr. Michelle Loy, an integrative medicine specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and assistant professor of pediatrics in clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Health Matters spoke with Dr. Loy to understand the difference between tai chi and qigong, and how both can benefit the body and mind.

How would you define tai chi and qigong? What’s the difference between the two?
Dr. Loy: Tai chi and qigong are both centuries-old mind-body practices aimed at optimizing energy within the body, mind, and spirit. There are many variations of qigong, and tai chi is one of them. The practice includes certain postures and gentle movements to help with mental focus, breathing, and relaxation. The movements can be adapted or practiced while walking, standing, or sitting.

What distinguishes tai chi’s movements are that, if practiced quickly, they can be a form of self-defense. It was initially an ancient martial art in China, but over the years it has become more focused on health promotion and rehabilitation. When tai chi is performed for health, it’s considered a form of qigong. If you’re looking at these practices for health purposes, and from a clinician’s perspective, there’s really not too much difference. Both are considered forms of moving meditation within the traditional Chinese medicine framework.

What makes qigong different from other movement-based wellness practices, like yoga?
Both yoga and qigong originated in the East and help promote peace and mental clarity through the incorporation of breathing techniques and physical movements. They both emphasize a person’s awareness of their body and how it moves. And they each enhance life-sustaining energy: In yoga it’s called prana, and in qigong it’s called qi.

I’ve read that the postures in yoga were originally created for building muscle so that the practitioner could sustain hours-long meditation and practice sessions, whereas qigong historically has had less of a muscular focus and promoted flowing movements, making it physically easier to practice. But one is not better than the other. Both are just different paths to the same goal: improving the body and physical health, quieting the mind, and strengthening the connection to the inner soul.

"Studies have shown that healthy adults, those with chronic disease, children and adolescents have all experienced a better quality of life by practicing tai chi or qigong."

— Dr. Michelle Loy

What are some of the health benefits associated with qigong and tai chi? Are there particular conditions or diseases that can benefit from these kinds of practice?
There are a lot of benefits for your mind and body, whether or not you have a chronic condition or disease. The National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is a great resource that summarizes a lot of the research and trials on their benefits.

But to summarize some of the research, these are just a few of the findings that show tai chi specifically may help with:

  • Improving balance and stability in older people with Parkinson’s disease
  • Reducing pain from knee osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and general back pain
  • Improving mood and quality of life in people with heart failure and cancer
  • Reducing the fear and subsequent act of falling in older people by strengthening their balance

Studies have shown that qigong may help with:

  • Easing the symptoms of chronic neck pain, fibromyalgia, knee osteoarthritis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Improving balance and walking ability among people with Parkinson’s disease
  • Improving blood pressure and peak oxygen consumption among people with chronic heart failure
  • Improving sleep, postmenopausal symptoms, mental function, and symptoms of depression and anxiety

I also serve many oncology patients in my practice, and I’ve seen quite a few studies that have looked at the benefits of qigong in helping improve the symptoms of cancer like fatigue, poor sleep quality, anxiety, stress, depressive symptoms, and overall quality of life. And something worth keeping an eye on are very early studies on COVID-19 and how qigong has helped improve patients’ lung function and overall physical activity and quality of life.

What accounts for this wide range of benefits across the body and mind?
The research is still emerging, but I think there are many potential factors. Some of the medical conditions that are responsive to qigong, like depression, fatigue, and pain, may be related to inflammatory processes. I also think that some of these therapies, like yoga and qigong, help modify a person’s perception of pain.

For data that suggests improvements in heart rate or blood pressure, they could be related to the effect that qigong may have on the vagus nerve, the main nerve that helps regulate bodily processes like digestion, heart rate, and the nervous system. Reduced negative emotions and increased self-regulation could be tied to the mindfulness aspect. And another set of benefits could be tied to the release of endorphins or endocannabinoids, which are neurotransmitters that help regulate functions like sleep, memory, pain, and immunity.

One of the biggest areas where the whole-body movements of tai chi and qigong helps is by improving circulation to the muscles and organs and the major myofascial tracks (the connective tissue that runs throughout the body). In traditional Chinese medicine, we call them meridians. They are like highways throughout your body that impact different organs, and each organ has a different meridian associated with it. When we improve circulation to these myofascial tracks, think of it as clearing “traffic jams” to the flow of your chi, which has benefits for strength, flexibility, and movement.

Who do you think would benefit most from tai chi and qi gong? What do you recommend to folks who are starting their own practice?
Pretty much anyone can benefit from these practices. NCCIH literature has shown that a wide range of people — healthy adults, the elderly, breast cancer survivors, stroke survivors, adults with chronic disease, children and adolescents — have all experienced a better quality of life by practicing tai chi or qigong. Basically, it can benefit you whether you are healthy or have chronic illness.

One of the reasons tai chi and qigong seem more appropriate for older people is because of their slower, gentler movements. Tai chi can be very safe and is very unlikely to result in any kind of serious injury. It may be associated with minor aches and pains, but no more from any other kind of exercise. Many studies also indicate no negative impacts in people who practice qigong, including in older adults and people with chronic disease.

But there are some things to keep in mind. Tai chi instructors do not have to be licensed, and there is no national standard for qigong certification or federal regulation of the practice. There are tai chi and qigong organizations that provide training and certification programs, but they have different criteria. It’s still best to practice with a professional to ensure your movements are correct and safe — as opposed to just using a video or book — so ask a trusted source like your health care provider to suggest an instructor.

Lastly, if you have a health condition, you should talk with your health care provider before starting tai chi or qigong, as you would with any other exercise. And inform your doctor or medical professional about any complementary or integrative practices to ensure you’re getting coordinated and safe care.

Michelle H. Loy, M.D., FAAP, is an assistant attending physician and integrative medicine and wellness specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, focusing on the use of nutrition, movement, and mind-body lifestyle medicine in the prevention and management of chronic illnesses. She also has training in human nutrition/obesity, medical hypnosis, mind and body stress reduction, and yoga for medical conditions, and runs virtual sessions on Qigong for Health at the Integrative Health & Wellbeing Program at NewYork-Presbyterian. Dr. Loy is also an assistant professor of pediatrics in clinical medicine and assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine.

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