The Intriguing Health Benefits of Qigong

The Claim: Qigong, a Chinese health practice based on gentle movements, meditation and breathing, has wide-ranging benefits, including improving balance, lowering blood pressure and even easing depression.

The Verdict: Increasingly popular in the U.S., qigong (pronounced chee-gong) has been found in recent studies to improve quality of life in cancer patients and fight depression. Other studies have found improvements in balance and blood pressure. But so far, there aren’t enough large, well-designed studies to constitute solid proof of any benefits, scientists say.

Traditionally, qigong is described as a practice that cultivates “qi,” or life energy. Qi can’t be measured objectively, says Shin Lin, a professor of cell biology at the University of California, Irvine. But his studies of qigong and tai chi practitioners have found a boost in both alpha brain waves, suggesting relaxation, and beta waves, indicating strong focus. “It has the dual benefit of relaxing you, but also sharpening your mind,” says Dr. Lin.

Some studies have found improvement in balance from qigong. At least one cites the fact that participants are taught to take a wider, more stable stance when standing.

Natural Standard Research Collaboration, a Cambridge, Mass., scientist group that evaluates natural therapies, gives qigong a grade of “B,” for hypertension, concluding that there is “good evidence” to support its use along with standard medications to treat the condition.

Earlier this year, a three-month, 14-person study of depressed Chinese-Americans, who were offered one-hour qigong classes twice a week and encouraged to practice at home, found that 60% of those who took at least 15 classes saw a significant improvement in depression based on a standard rating scale. “One theory is that qigong helps people to relax and combat stress,” which tends to aggravate depression, says study co-author Albert Yeung, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge.

The study was too small to be conclusive, adds Dr. Yeung, a senior consultant at the Benson-Henry Institute. But he’s excited enough about the potential that he already recommends qigong to patients with mild and moderate depression, and in combination with medication to patients with severe depression.

For cancer patients, qigong can be done sitting and lying down if a person has physical constraints or is in pain, says Yang Yang, a kinesiologist and researcher, who teaches qigong at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

In a study of 96 women getting radiation therapy for breast cancer, published earlier this year, a team of Chinese scientists and researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston found reduced depression in women who took five weekly classes of qigong, compared with a control group that didn’t take the classes. Among those depressed at the start of the trial, fatigue was lessened and overall quality of life improved.

Many people take qigong group classes, which typically cost $10 to $20 an hour, or practice at home after learning the exercises in a class or from a qigong DVD or online video.

– Laura Johannes at laura.johannes@wsj.com

A version of this article appeared October 1, 2013, on page D4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Qigong as a Remedy for Depression, Fatigue.

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