Qigong (pronounced “chee-gong”) is deeply rooted in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It’s been used to promote and restore health for thousands of years, though it wasn’t formally called “qigong” until the 1950s. That said, the Red Thread International Institute refers to qigong as “the world’s oldest healthcare system.”
“Qigong is a mind-body practice that utilizes postures, coordinated breaths, and intention setting. It’s one of these universal practices that can be applied in so many different ways,” says Michael Sweeney, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, a doctor of medical qigong, the deputy chair of the National Qigong Association (NQA), and the director of academics at the Red Thread International Qigong Institute in Carbondale, Colorado.
According to the NQA, the term “qigong” is made up of two words or concepts. There’s “qi,” which means “vital energy,” and “gong,” which translates to “skill cultivated through steady practice.” TCM’s core theories and their practitioners believe that qi flows through the bodies of all living beings. If this energy becomes stagnant or blocked, health problems may appear.
Through simple postures, deep breathing patterns, and intention setting, qigong is believed, according to TCM, to promote a better flow of qi, per the Cleveland Clinic. With improved qi flow may come better health overall.
Researchers have studied qigong and found that the ancient mind-body practice potentially offers many mind-body benefits. Here’s what you might be curious to know about the physiological and mental benefits that can come with starting a practice and where scientific research has room for growth.
Possible Health and Wellness Benefits of Qigong
1. Lowers Blood Pressure
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a major risk factor for heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Certain lifestyle habits, such as being physically inactive and chronically stressed, can cause your blood pressure to rise, leading to hypertension over time, according to the Mayo Clinic. Incorporating mind-body practices like qigong into your wellness routine, alongside your mainstream medical care plan (like medications and other forms of conventional exercise), may help move your blood pressure back to a healthy level.
The findings from a review and meta-analysis published in January 2021 in BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies suggest that qigong may reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension. Interestingly, one of the seven studies included in the review found that qigong had similar effects on blood pressure as a conventional exercise routine, potentially benefiting heart health through repetitive movements that improve circulation.
In addition, qigong’s intentional breathwork may help lower blood pressure and stress levels. Slow, deep breathing calms the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) side of your autonomic nervous system, which regulates processes like digestion, breathing, and blood pressure. In turn, it stimulates your body’s parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) response. When your parasympathetic side kicks in, your heart rate and blood pressure decrease. A well-functioning parasympathetic nervous system that’s in balance can reduce risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the Hospital for Special Surgery.
“Taking active control of the autonomic nervous system is one of the most powerful tools we have for stress management, and I know of no other practice that does this as beautifully as qigong,” says Chris Bouguyon, a co-founder of SimplyAware Wellness and Training Center in Richardson, Texas, the president of the NQA, and a certified medical qigong therapist who specializes in trauma.
Still, studies involving larger numbers of people with hypertension are needed to determine if qigong is a more widely effective therapy for lowering blood pressure across more varied groups of people.
2. Reduces Anxiety and Depression
Because qigong involves slowing down and fostering presence, it may benefit your mental health overall.
A review and meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials revealed that qigong can help relieve anxiety and stress in healthy people. Two of the studies included suggest that qigong may have a more immediate effect on decreasing anxiety levels when compared with only listening to music or performing structured movements. However, the authors caution against generalizing their findings, as there are a limited number of studies available on the topic.
Regarding qigong’s potential ability to help alleviate depression, a systematic review and meta-analysis published in November 2019 in Frontiers in Psychiatry examined nine studies across varied people coping with depression who were generally physically healthy otherwise, as well as participants with breast cancer or hypertension. It found that in five of the nine studies, participants saw improvements in depression levels. The remaining four studies observed no change in participants. Those who saw improvements in depression generally practiced qigong at least twice a week.
While each study included in the review looked at different possible explanations for qigong’s effects on depression, the authors believe that the most valid explanation is qigong’s ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and shut off the sympathetic nervous system.
When the sympathetic nervous system lives in overdrive, the immune system releases higher levels of cytokines (proteins that promote inflammation), which may lead to changes in the brain that are tangential to depression, according to research.
A similar review published in July 2019 in Frontiers in Immunology found evidence supporting the hypothesis that inflammation may play a role in some forms of depression and fatigue.
However, according to the reviews above, more high-quality studies, with less bias, are needed to understand if and how qigong can help people with anxiety and depression.
3. Relieves Chronic Pain
When we’re in constant pain, many of us instinctively tighten up and restrict our movements — the body’s way of guarding against further discomfort. “When that happens, our circulation through the area that’s injured is reduced, which then makes it hurt longer and slows the healing process,” Bouguyon believes.
The low-impact postures in qigong help introduce gentle movement to tight, achy muscles and joints, where, according to TCM, qi can become blocked. By increasing movement, you increase circulation to facilitate healing, Bouguyon says.
Some guidelines support Bouguyon’s claims. For example, 2017 clinical practice guidelines set by the Ottawa Panel — an international group of research-method experts who create evidence-based recommendations — state that the tai chi style of qigong may enhance quality of life, lower pain, and improve function in people with wear-and-tear knee osteoarthritis (OA). (According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, in knee OA, when cartilage gradually wears away, pain, swelling, and stiffness can occur.)
Qigong may help with chronic low back pain, too. A study published in April 2019 in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies followed 72 office workers with low back pain, sending half of the group to an hourlong qigong class once a week for six weeks. The other office workers were given general advice for managing low back pain. By the end of the study, the workers who took qigong classes saw significant improvements in pain, function, range of motion, and core muscle strength. The control group didn’t experience changes within these parameters.
While anecdotal evidence and the findings of the aforementioned studies may seem promising, more research on qigong and chronic pain is needed. The authors of a review published in November 2019 in Complementary and Alternative Medicine hold that existing studies of qigong and chronic pain are of variable quality, and they note that not all showed beneficial or reliable results.
4. Improves Well-Being in People With Cancer
People undergoing cancer treatment often turn to integrative and complementary therapies to help them manage stress and anxiety. Research suggests that qigong may be an effective option.
A study found that patients with breast cancer who practiced qigong twice a week for 10 weeks reported greater improvements in quality of life than patients who received conventional medical care only. The patients who incorporated qigong into their care routine also reported less tension, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. These results are consistent with other research linking mindfulness, breathing, and yoga practices to stress reduction. In addition, the authors note that physical exercise is often recommended by healthcare providers for improving fatigue and quality of life in people with cancer.
Meanwhile, the authors of a systematic review published in November 2017 in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice combed through 22 studies, which included 1,751 people with various types of cancer. They found that qigong led to significant improvements in psychological and physiological symptoms related to cancer and cancer treatment. However, the authors say that the effectiveness of qigong for managing cancer treatment symptoms is not yet universally demonstrated, and more research is needed to verify the benefits and best protocols to offer the practice.
5. Strengthens the Immune System
Thanks to slower movements that are believed to lubricate the joints and promote the circulation of important fluids in the body (like blood, lymph, and synovial), qigong may boost your immune system as a result.
In a systematic review and meta-analysis published in July 2020 in Medicines, researchers reviewed 19 randomized, controlled trials involving 1,686 people of various ages and with different health conditions. They found evidence that practicing qigong may positively affect immune system function and inflammatory responses. In particular, participants who practiced qigong saw increased immune cell levels and improved regulation of hormones associated with inflammation, yet the effect size was small. The authors note that it took participants four weeks of practicing qigong to notice changes in their immune response. However, with a diverse field of parameters and a lack of examining why qigong may impact the immune system, more research is needed to further explore this potential health benefit.
6. Improves Fitness
Qigong is generally a gentle, low-impact activity with aerobic and strength components. As such, it can be a beneficial form of exercise for many people, including those with limited mobility. Some studies exist, yet are specific to certain types of qigong and are overall limited.
One systematic review and meta-analysis published in March 2017 in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine focused on how Baduanjin qigong (a type of qigong that involves moving through eight postures) might impact general fitness. After reviewing 19 randomized, controlled trials, researchers concluded that Baduanjin qigong can improve quality of life, balance, handgrip strength, torso flexibility, blood pressure, and heart rate. These benefits were seen in younger and older adults alike but were especially pronounced in older adults and people with chronic conditions like Parkinson’s disease.
A study published in October 2020 in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation found that qigong led to significant improvements in muscle strength and trunk flexibility. Researchers assigned 20 young sedentary women to an eight-week qigong training program that involved performing 18 movements for 60 minutes a day, five days per week. A control group of 21 young sedentary women did not participate in the qigong sessions. Those who practiced qigong experienced improved back and leg strength, and improved trunk flexibility, in two month’s time, whereas the control group saw no physical changes.
The Bottom Line: Is It Reasonable to Start a Qigong Practice?
Qigong may be a safe and effective activity for many people. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, many studies have indicated no major negative side effects to the practice, even in older adults and people with chronic health conditions.
Practicing qigong may improve fitness, reduce anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure, relieve chronic pain, strengthen the immune and respiratory systems, and improve overall well-being.
However, as with all conventional medicine and integrative therapies, be sure to consult your primary healthcare provider before starting any new practice, and use directories offered by the Red Thread International Qigong Institute, the International Medical Qigong College, and the NQA to help you find a qualified qigong practitioner to get started under the guidance of a trained professional.