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5 Cardio Exercises Recommended by TCM

Published | 4 min read

Worried that most cardio exercises like running and cycling are too tiring for you? Here are low-impact options recommended by Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Man wearing white long-sleeved shirt and pants practices Qigong on a yoga mat next to a lake.

Cardio exercises are defined as heart rate-raising aerobic physical activities that involve repetitive rhythmic movements of large muscle groups. Workouts such as running, cycling, and dance aerobics may come to mind.

If you think these are the only forms of cardio exercises to choose from, you’re mistaken. Read on to learn about alternatives that are low-impact, which Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recommends.

What TCM Says About Cardio Exercises 

According to Real Medical Chief TCM Physician Chu I Ta, cardio as an exercise philosophy has long existed in ancient TCM practice. Known as dao yin shu (导引术), it roughly translates to ‘Guiding Technique’ and was prescribed for those who became sedentary when life got more convenient. Sound familiar? 

A group of people practising Qigong in a park.
Qigong is a system of wellness primarily known for meditative movement exercises that have been developed over thousands of years.

Dao yin is known today as qi gong (气功), or the cultivation of qi. Qigong focuses on controlled breathing, flowing movement, and mental focus to: 

  • Improve the flow of qi (vital life force) and blood circulation 
  • Balance yin (cool, calm energy) and yang (warm, active energy) 
  • Harmonise the organ systems 

Today there are many different types of Qigong exercise routines. Here are 5 you can practise to improve cardiovascular health. 

5 TCM Exercises for Cardiovascular Health 

Common exercises such as running and cycling are considered yang types of cardio that quickly raise warm, active energy.

Physician Chu recommends exercising at least 1 hour after meals. If you have a tight work schedule, between 4:30pm and 6:30pm may be more convenient. Avoid exercising at night as this may activate too much yang energy that can interrupt restful sleep. 

Here are a few alternatives that are low-impact on your joints but are still heart healthy. 

Ba Duan Jin (八段锦) or Eight-Section Brocades

Four women practice Ba Duan Jin Qigong outdoors against the purple sky.
Ba Duan Jin or the Eight Section Brocades exercises are simple yet effective as far as TCM cardio exercises go.

Ba Duan Jin focuses on eight simple movements stimulating energy release in the different organ systems. Physician Chu recommends this regimen if you’re new to Qigong, as it is the simplest and most accessible.

“Research discovered that practising Ba Duan Jin can strengthen heart muscles, improve blood flow and circulation, and even reduce resting heart rate. These are all good health markers that help prevent high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar.” 

TCM Physician Chu I-Ta  

Yi Jin Jing (易筋经) or Tendon-muscle Strengthening Exercises 

This Qigong routine is more yoga-like because it combines more spine-based movements with deep breathing. There are more height level changes and pulling movements as compared to Ba Duan Jin

Even if it sounds challenging, Yi Jin Jing is still suitable for elderly folk. Recent research demonstrated that it significantly improved muscle strength to help prevent senile sarcopenia. 

Shi Er Duan Jin (十二段锦) or Twelve-Section Brocades  

Shi Er Duan Jin developed over several hundred years, building on earlier exercises. It now incorporates traditional wisdom and modifications to cater to today’s physical challenges.

It comprises 12 movements performed seated, focusing on the neck, shoulders, waist, and abdomen. However, don’t be fooled into thinking this exercise is too easy, as you still require coordination and concentration.

Wu Qin Xi or Five Animals Exercises (五禽戏)  

Wu Qin Xi, possibly the oldest form of Qigong exercises, simulates being in harmony with nature. It adapts the movements of five animals: the tiger, bear, bear, monkey, and bird.

If you think this routine is wild, you’d be right, as its movements are rigorous and supple and are more complex in choreography. It’s a heart-healthy way to move since research has shown that Wu Qin Xi can significantly improve risk factors for cardiovascular disease. 

Tai Ji Quan (太极拳) or Tai Chi 

Man in a traditional Chinese outfit practising tai chi in a park.
Although tai chi is a form of martial art, many practice it primarily for its health benefits.

Tai Ji Quan, or tai chi, is Qigong’s martial art cousin. Though it’s much more complex than Qigong movements, it’s still based on the same core principles of meditation (focus), breathing, and movement flow.

You might have seen uncles and aunties practising tai chi in your local neighbourhood to maintain health, and they have the right idea. A recent systematic review of studies including 1,244 teens revealed that tai chi and Qigong could reduce feelings of anxiety, depression, and cortisol levels. 

As is the case with conventional cardio exercises, these TCM-approved exercises should be part of a healthy lifestyle. Try incorporating them with a healthy diet supplemented with herbs like cordyceps and ginseng, as well as quality rest and sleep. 

Interested in picking up one of these exercises? Seek Qigong lessons in your neighbourhood or start with Ba Duan Jin and let us know how it goes.

References

  1. Fyzical Therapy and Balance Centers. 2019. [online] [Accessed 12 February 2023]  
  2. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2019. Dao Yin (a.k.a. Qigong): Origin, Development, Potential Mechanisms, and Clinical Applications. [online] [Accessed 12 February 2023]  
  3. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2017. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis Baduanjin Qigong for Health Benefits: Randomized Controlled Trials. [online] [Accessed 12 February 2023]  
  4. Frontiers in Psychology. 2021. The Effects of Tai Chi and Qigong Exercise on Psychological Status in Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. [online] [Accessed 12 February 2023] 
  5. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2019. Wuqinxi Qigong as an Alternative Exercise for Improving Risk Factors Associated with Metabolic Syndrome: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials [online] [Accessed 12 February 2023] 
  6. Journal of Acupuncture and Tuina Science. 2017. Effect of Yi Jin Jing (Sinew-transforming Qigong Exercises) on skeletal muscle strength in the elderly. [online] [Accessed 12 February 2023] 
  7. Chinese Health Qi Gong Association. Chinese Health Qi Gong Association Youtube Channel. [online] [Accessed 12 February 2023] 

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