Qigong (chee-kung) and taiji (tye-chee)
-- or tai chi, as it is more commonly known in the U.S. -- combine
simple, graceful movements and meditation. Qigong, which dates to
the middle of the first millennium B.C., is a series of integrated
exercises believed to have positive, relaxing effects on a person's
mind, body and spirit. Tai chi is a holistic form of exercise and a
type of qigong that melds Chinese philosophy with martial and
"Traditional tai chi training includes qigong, but
most contemporary tai chi researchers have omitted qigong from their
research," said visiting kinesiology professor Yang Yang. "As a
result, previous researchers may not have documented all of the
health benefits possible from traditional tai chi training."
Yang, a tai chi master with three decades of experience, said tai
chi and qigong are relatively simple, safe and inexpensive, and
require no props or special equipment, making them easily adaptable
for practice by healthy senior citizens.
In two studies -- one quantitative, one qualitative -- presented
recently at the North American Research Conference on Complementary
and Integrative Medicine, lead researcher Yang found that healthy
seniors who practiced a combination of qigong and tai chi three
times a week for six months experienced significant physical
benefits after only two months.
Not only did participants demonstrate noticeable improvements in
laboratory-controlled tests designed to measure balance, lower body
strength and stance width, a subset of participants who contributed
responses in the qualitative study provided dramatic evidence of how
tai chi and qigong practice had also enhanced their lives from a
mental, emotional and spiritual perspective.
"Seniors said, 'Now I can put my socks and jeans on just like I
always used to, standing up instead of sitting down,'" said Yang,
who published the results of the studies as his doctoral
dissertation. Yang said a woman noted that she had reduced the
number of strokes required to swim across the pool -- from 20 to
between 11 and 14. Another said she was more confident of her
ability to climb the stairs to her attic.
Other evidence pointed to improvements in sleep quality,
concentration, memory, self-esteem and overall energy levels.
Other positive statements by participants regarding how they
generally felt better mentally and physically:
"I have the sense
that I'm not going to go downhill nearly as quickly as I might
have. It's a very positive way to feel."
"I feel more upbeat
… more optimistic … more hopeful. I upped my lifespan from 80 to
"You don't think
about 70-year-olds learning new things they can carry on … this
is so unexpected. This has made me feel much younger … much
younger, let's say, 10 years. Someone who hasn't done this has
no comprehension about how much better it has made me feel."
The quantitative study included 39 participants and a control
group of 29. The average age of participants was 80. Each was given
a battery of physical performance tests in the beginning as a
baseline, then again after two-month and six-month intervals. The
smaller qualitative study consisted of in-depth interviews with four
of the exercise participants described by Yang as "very enthusiastic
about their tai chi and qigong practice."
"At present, Yang is the only one who has been putting those two
things -- the quantitative and the qualitative -- together," said
kinesiology and psychology professor Karl Rosengren, Yang's Ph.D.
adviser and contributing author of the U of I studies. "Usually they
are not seen together in the same research."
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Yang and Rosengren said the quantitative study is the first, to
their knowledge, to employ a randomized control trial, or RCT,
designed with testers blind to group allocation, and the first to
combine laboratory platform balance measures with multiple measures
of functional balance and physical performance.
"It is also the first tai chi RCT to evaluate potential sensory
organization improvements in elderly practitioners, to evaluate
whether balance and strength improvements are significant predictors
of a laboratory loss of balance measures, and to evaluate stance
width as a possible learned strategic mechanism for improved
postural stability," Yang said.
In real-world terms, improvements in these areas are believed to
reduce seniors' risks of falling and suffering potentially
Yang, who also is the director of the Center for Taiji Studies
and the author of the book "Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The
Science of Power" (Zhenwu Publications), said one of the facets of
the studies most interesting to him is how comments collected from
the interviews correlated with the quantitative data gathered in the
For example, in assessing the effects of tai chi and qigong
practice on participants, the researchers used a number of standard
physical activity measurements -- among them, the single leg stand.
This measures the length of time an individual can stand on one leg,
with eyes closed and eyes open.
"With eyes open, we saw an 83 percent improvement after two
months," Yang said. "With eyes closed, we did not see results -- 29
percent improvement -- until the end of six months.
Numbers alone don't tell the full story of the results, however,
Yang said. "But when you see how it translates to functional
performance … how meaningful it is to their daily life -- putting on
jeans, taking groceries out, even the posture you have when you hold
your grandchildren -- the results are significant."
Also telling, he said, is the strong desire among study
participants to continue practicing tai chi and qigong beyond the
bounds of the research.
"The program has demonstrated its sustainability at one of the
senior-living facility instruction sites, where an enthusiastic
activities director has continued classes and actually expanded
participation since the completion of the study," he said.
Rosengren said the U of I research team plans to continue
studying the links between tai chi and qigong and the benefits of
their practice for older adults.
"We plan to focus on trying to understand the mechanisms more,"
he said. "We'll also try to investigate more closely the effects of
the expertise of the instructor by looking at other research that's
been done and trying to get measures of expertise in training.
"One of the things I think gets lost in a lot of the tai chi
research is that the quality of the instructor matters. We've seen
programs where they don't really care about that. They'll have
someone who's had six months of tai chi experience, and they think
they can teach tai chi.
"Having watched Yang and having seen videotapes of instructors
with minimal experience, there's a huge difference," Rosengren said.
"It's the wealth of knowledge he brings and the combination of the
science from the West and the traditions from the East that actually
bring together things in a very positive way."
Co-authors with Yang and Rosengren on the quantitative study were
Jay Verkuilen, Scott Grubisich and Michael Reed. Additional
co-authors on the qualitative study were Reed, Sharon DeCelle,
Robert Schlagal and Jennifer Greene.
of Illinois news release]