Most of us in the United States think that exercise needs to be an activity in which we are pushing ourselves, breathing hard, and sweating up a storm. Did you know that there are ways of gently exercising that can be especially beneficial for patients with cancer and cancer survivors?
Tai Chi and Qigong are ancient forms of exercise that fit the bill for helping patients with cancer get moving and improve their overall sense of well-being. Tai Chi practice can help with pain conditions, especially pain involving muscles and joints; it can also reduce stress and anxiety and improve the quality of sleep.
What Is Tai Chi and Qigong?
Tai Chi and Qigong are very old forms of martial art. They combine breathing and slow, fluid movements to help restore balance in the body’s energy system. The movements are meant to express the balancing energies of “yin” and “yang” in the body.
“Qi” (or “Chi”) means the life force or internal energy in our bodies. Balancing the flow of this energy helps improve our overall health and well-being.
Qigong also uses simple, rhythmic movements, combined with breathing to help bring balance. In traditional Chinese medicine, Tai Chi and Qigong masters teach their students to balance the flow of energy in their bodies to restore health and wellness.
For patients with cancer, Tai Chi and Qigong provide benefit to many of the side effects associated with cancer and cancer treatment. Regularly practicing Tai Chi or Qigong can:
- Calm the mind and emotions. The slow, rhythmic movements combined with deep, relaxation breathing help to bring a sense of peace and grounding
- Improve balance, help prevent falls. Patients with cancer often have challenges with balance as a result of weakness from the cancer or the side effects of cancer treatment, such as neuropathy (tingling and numbness in the hands and feet), or other damage to the nervous system. Tai Chi and Qigong can help improve balance and decrease the risk of falls
- Reduce muscle and joint pain. Cancer and cancer treatment can cause muscle and joint pain, which can be very discouraging for patients who want to get active. The slow, fluid movements of Tai Chi and Qigong can help reduce muscle and joint pain
- Promote clear thinking and focus. Patients receiving chemotherapy often complain about “chemo-brain,” which impairs thinking and focus. Patients often report having a clearer mind after practicing Tai Chi and Qigong
- Increase flexibility. Tai Chi and Qigong help to stretch the muscles and improve joint mobility in a safe, gentle way
- Increase energy. Cancer treatment can cause patients to have low energy, despite getting a lot of sleep. Tai Chi and Qigong can help restore the body’s energy, making it easier to tolerate treatment and to feel better after treatment
- Uplift the spirits. Practicing Tai Chi and Qigong, especially in a supportive and fun group, has an uplifting effect on one’s spirit. Participants in class often report feeling more uplifted after the class than when they first arrived
- Improve breathing. While practicing Tai Chi and Qigong, participants also practice slow, rhythmic breathing. Deep breathing helps calm the nervous system and bring awareness to how we are breathing when stressed. Once these techniques are learned, we can then use them whenever we need to reduce stress
Nancy, a cancer survivor, commented, “I began participating in the Tai Chi class at Levine Cancer Institute 3 years ago and look forward to it every week! In these 3 years, I have increased my body strength and balance, and learned ways to focus my thoughts and breathing to enhance my sense of well-being. It has now become second nature for me to use my breathing and relaxation skills when I find myself in stressful situations, such as medical scans, tests, and appointments.” She added, “Along with the physical exercise, I appreciate the contact with other cancer survivors as we share our stories. Tai Chi is truly a key to healthy living for me!”
Am I Fit Enough?
People with most levels of fitness can practice Tai Chi and Qigong. Many of the exercises can be done in a sitting position, and participants are encouraged to listen to their bodies and take a break when needed.
Ask Your Care Team
Many cancer centers offer Tai Chi and Qigong for patients and caregivers. Check with your doctor or navigator to see where you may be able to join a beginner class.
Ask if the Tai Chi and Qigong instructor is familiar with working with cancer survivors. Always check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program, even such a low-intensity program as Tai Chi or Qigong.