Many older adults contend not only with ailing physical health but also with depression, which lowers self-esteem and can wreak havoc with quality of life. Leading medical professionals, hoping to reduce costs and lower the risk of adverse side effects, are interested in alternatives to mainstream treatments, such as psychotherapy and prescription drugs. A new study suggests that qigong practice may be one way to tackle health issues among the elderly on both physical and mental levels.

The randomized, controlled trial—published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry (2006; 21 [9], 890–97)—found that regular qigong practice could relieve depression and improve self-efficacy and personal well-being in elderly persons with chronic physical illness and depression. Scientists in Hong Kong studied 82 depressed adults, all of whom were at least 65 years old. The investigators assigned the intervention group to qigong practice three times per week for 16 weeks. During that period, the control group participated in a newspaper discussion group with the same frequency.

Subjects in the qigong practice group experienced significant improvements compared with the newspaper group. After 8 weeks, qigong practitioners had more mood improvement and higher ratings of self-efficacy and personal well-being; they had also gained more physical strength and endurance, and their social relationships had improved more, giving them a better quality of personal life. After 16 weeks, qigong subjects continued to show more improvement than the control group in all these areas and in addition showed even further gains in their abilities to perform daily physical tasks.

The mechanism underlying why qigong practice results in improvements in both physical and psychosocial domains remains unclear. Some scientists theorize that qigong stimulates both the neuroendocrine system and the immune system. The authors of this study recommended that further research be conducted to compare qigong with other exercise programs in order to determine whether the mind-body benefits gained from qigong could also be obtained from other forms of activity. The authors also noted that qigong practice should be ongoing and continuous for long-lasting results. (Editor’s note: For more on qigong’s benefits, see p. 101.