September 2014 Issue

By Jennifer Van Pelt, MA
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 16 No. 9 P. 14

This traditional Chinese health and wellness system provides a variety of health benefits.

In a previous column, I wrote about the benefits of tai chi. This month, I’ll be discussing qigong, a lesser known ancient and traditional Chinese health care practice.

According to the National Qigong Association, the word “qigong” (also known as chi kung) is derived from two Chinese words: qi (pronounced “chee”), which means the life force or vital energy that flows through all things in the universe, and gong (pronounced “gung”), which means accomplishment or skill that’s cultivated through steady practice. Together, qigong means cultivating energy.

Qigong is a system practiced for health maintenance, healing, and vitality, and it’s popularity as a fitness activity is increasing, though it’s often confused with, or even combined with, tai chi.

What’s the Difference?
“Qigong and tai chi both use slow, gentle, rhythmic movements and focus on cultivating internal stillness and quieting the mind through weightless, effortless movements. However, there are several important distinctions between these two traditions,” says Ashley Welikonich, an American Council on Exercise–certified mind-body exercise specialist, a certified qigong instructor, and the owner of Pagoda Wellness in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Qigong is a health or wellness system of exercise, whereas tai chi is a martial art. With tai chi, a form often is practiced where an individual will follow a fixed set of exercises. As a result, it can take longer to become adept at tai chi. In qigong, exercises can be selected individually and practiced for any duration of time. With the flexibility provided by qigong, it’s easy to modify as needed for any musculoskeletal or health restrictions.

Tai chi can require more advanced balance skills, while many qigong exercises are completed in a stationary position. Qigong does improve balance, though, through weight-bearing, core-strengthening exercises.

When qigong and tai chi are compared with other forms of therapeutic exercise, they’re the most similar to each other, and many practitioners use a mix of both. However, compared with yoga, there are vast differences, Welikonich says. All three have the goal of aligning body, mind, and breath, but qigong and tai chi use more continuous movements. In yoga, the same goal most often is achieved through holding a pose or a series of poses, she says.

Health Benefits
The National Qigong Association states that qigong is practiced to maintain health, calm the mind, and reconnect with one’s spirit. According to Welikonich, her clients commonly practice qigong for stress relief and increased energy.

As qigong moves into mainstream American fitness facilities, exercisers are wondering about its purpose and benefits compared with more familiar fitness activities. Qigong especially is popular among older adults because of the many stationary stances and ease of modifying movements to accommodate physical limitations. Qigong even can be practiced while seated and therefore is a welcome addition to senior exercise program offerings. Additional health benefits for older adults include increased bone density and functional mobility, promotion of longevity, and lessening of senility, Welikonich says. 

However, qigong isn’t only for the elderly. Benefits for individuals with active lifestyles include improved balance, coordination, and athletic performance, Welikonich adds. Qigong programs for athletes are available and endorsed by professional athletes to improve focus, performance, strength, energy, and pain reduction.

Qigong Research
Americans have a tendency to focus on only the fitness aspect of Eastern health practices such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong. Calorie burning and muscle toning become the primary goals when considering new fitness activities, but qigong provides benefits beyond just fitness and should be viewed as a practice to improve overall health. Scientific studies support qigong’s health benefits for many conditions, including hypertension, cardiovascular disease, immune function, stroke, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, respiratory function, and cancer, Welikonich says.

Hundreds of studies regarding qigong have been published over the last 20 years, with the following being recent ones of note:

• Two systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials on traditional Chinese exercise (qigong and tai chi) found therapeutic value associated with qigong for pulmonary rehabilitation in patients with COPD, including improvements in physical performance, lung function, dyspnea remission, and quality of life.1,2

• Hemodialysis patients who practiced qigong three times weekly for six months significantly reduced their fatigue compared with usual routine care.3

• Patients with chronic fatigue symptoms who practiced qigong twice weekly for 17 weeks experienced significantly improved physical and mental fatigue and depression symptoms.4

• A systematic review and meta-analysis of 13 randomized controlled trials on qigong/tai chi practiced by cancer patients found positive effects on cancer-specific quality of life, fatigue, immune function, and cortisol levels.5

• A meta-analysis of 26 randomized controlled trials of qigong in older patients with chronic medical conditions found qigong positively affected physiologic factors such as white blood cell and lymphocyte counts, cardiovascular and respiratory function, blood pressure, and cholesterol as well as depressive mood scores.6

Valuable Addition
With the potential to improve health, reduce stress, and increase energy, qigong can be a valuable addition to anyone’s exercise program. As with all exercise, it’s important to start slowly and make gradual lifestyle changes that will last, Welikonich says. Many participants begin with a qigong class that meets once weekly and are motivated to practice more once they experience the benefits, she says. “Ideally, qigong should be practiced daily for 15 to 60 minutes,” she adds.
For those interested in further information on qigong’s background, science, and basic exercises, Welikonich recommends the book The Healer Within by Roger Jahnke.

After thousands of years of practice in China, qigong now is becoming more popular in the United States, so clients should be able to find a local class to attend at a fitness facility, community center, long term care/older adult organization, or mind-body studio.

— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a certified group fitness instructor and health care research analyst/consultant in the Reading, Pennsylvania, area.


1. Ng BH, Tsang HW, Ng BF, So CT. Traditional Chinese exercises for pulmonary rehabilitation: evidence from a systematic review [published online June 10, 2014]. J Cardiopulm Rehabil Prev.

2. Ding M, Zhang W, Li K, Chen X. Effectiveness of t’ai chi and qigong on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Altern Complement Med. 2014;20(2):79-86.

3. Wu CY, Han HM, Huang MC, Chen YM, Yu WP, Weng LC. Effect of qigong training on fatigue in haemodialysis patients: A non-randomized controlled trial. Complement Ther Med. 2014;22(2):244-250.

4. Chan JS, Ho RT, Wang CW, Yuen LP, Sham JS, Chan CL. Effects of qigong exercise on fatigue, anxiety, and depressive symptoms of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome-like illness: a randomized controlled trial. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:485341. doi:10.1155/2013/485341.

5. Zeng Y, Luo T, Xie H, Huang M, Cheng AS. Health benefits of qigong or tai chi for cancer patients: a systematic review and meta-analyses. Complement Ther Med. 2014;22(1):173-186.

6. Ng BH, Tsang HW. Psychophysiological outcomes of health qigong for chronic conditions: a systematic review. Psychophysiology. 2009;46(2):257-269.