When we hear the term “medicine,” we typically think of a chemical compound that is ingested, whether it is pharmaceutical or herbal. Only in recent years have Americans started to think of exercise as medicine. In 2007, the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Medical Association launched an initiative called Exercise is Medicine; it calls for physical activity to be included as part of patient care. There has been mounting evidence from multiple research studies demonstrating that exercise can help prevent death from chronic diseases. Looking across to the other side of the world, we can learn from China where the concept of exercise as medicine has been practiced for over 2,000 years.
Many people have heard of the Chinese wellness practice called qigong. However, qigong is often misunderstood and shrouded in a veil of mysticism. In order to unshroud the mystery, we must first understand its origin. “Yang sheng”, which means cultivation of life, is an ancient Chinese term for wellness; it encompasses physical exercises, breath work, meditation, nutrition and traditional Chinese medicine principles. For cultivation of body, breath and mind, people practiced a myriad of diverse exercises developed by Taoist priests and Buddhist monks. In 1949, these varied exercises were all grouped into one category and coined with the “qigong” term. Because of its Taoist and Buddhist origins, the term is often misinterpreted as a uniquely religious or spiritual practice. Since qigong is a modern term used to classify thousands of disparate exercises, its routines can be bafflingly different from one another.
Over 2,000 years before the “qigong” term was coined, Taoists practiced “daoyin” (guiding and leading) exercises. A silk scroll dating back to 168 BC was unearthed in a tomb depicting 44 figures, each in a particular pose, and each pose aimed to cure a specific disease. The Daoyin Illustrations scroll is the world’s oldest recorded exercise chart. Three hundred years later, legendary doctor Hua Tuo created a series of daoyin exercises based on the movements of five animals—tiger, deer, bear, monkey and crane—for people to achieve optimal health. Almost 400 hundred years after that, the Buddhist monk Bodidharma traveled to the Shaolin Temple from India where he found the monks to be weak, sickly and in terrible health. Bodidharma developed three sets of mind-body-breath exercises for the monks to practice to improve their health and strength. Although each of these examples were created independently of each other hundreds of years apart and were unique in their origins, they all shared the idea of exercise as medicine.
Fast forwarding to the modern era, China has been battling the problems of modern society such as an increase in chronic diseases, shortage of doctors and rising healthcare costs. At the turn of this millennium, the Chinese government looked back into Chinese history and elevated the concept of exercise as medicine as a central theme of its public health policy. In China, qigong is classified into two categories: medical qigong used by traditional Chinese medicine doctors as part of medical treatment and health qigong, practiced for health preservation. The Chinese government placed priority on having its citizens practice health qigong as a way to improve the overall health of the population. Thus, the Chinese Health Qigong Association was established, consisting of the greatest qigong masters, distinguished traditional Chinese medicine doctors, and scientists and sports medicine experts from China’s top sports universities. Extensive research was conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of popular qigong exercises and their effects on blood and qi(energy) flow and their ability to improve the functioning of vital internal organs. Through this extensive and ongoing research study, the Chinese Health Qigong Association canonized 10 health qigong routines. The routines are based on the ancient exercises, but updated to maximize the effectiveness of every movement per the results of the studies.
In all of the health qigong exercises, each movement is designed to accomplish four important objectives: strengthen the physical body, stimulate qi flow through the body’s meridian channels, improve the functioning of vital internal organs and develop calm clarity in the mind. Practicing these health qigong exercises is an efficient way to achieve optimal fitness and health as the movements are specifically designed to marry traditional Chinese medicine principles and ancient exercise techniques with modern sports medicine research. Because this is a large scale, ongoing research project, the movements are systematically updated to incorporate the newest research results. This ensures these health qigong routines do not follow the demise of some of the other qigong practices that promise almost mystical benefits but produce very little actual result. The health qigong routines are currently practiced in 53 countries around the world, with strict oversight by the Chinese Health Qigong Association to ensure proper instruction.
China has expanded their health qigong programs into rural areas experiencing the greatest health problems due to lack of resources, education and access to quality healthcare. Professors from China’s sports universities have been assigned to spend time in rural areas to teach health qigong to more of the Chinese population. The Chinese have looked back into their history to revive the tradition of yang sheng and implement the concept of exercise as medicine through the practice of health qigong. As people in other parts of the world also suffer from increasing chronic diseases and rising healthcare costs, they should look at the Chinese practice of yang sheng and elevate the value of exercise as medicine to improve their own health.