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Qigong, flexibility and fourth graders

Editor's note: Ashley Davidson graduated this month with a Master of Public Health degree from Indiana University's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. She spent several months interacting with Bloomington, Ind., fourth-graders as part of the Monroe County YMCA Energize Program. Also an intern in IU's Office of University Communications, Ashley wrote about what the youngsters had to say about health and qigong for Active for Life.

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"Pretend you are a sunflower stretching towards the blue sky"

qigong photo

Researchers in the U.S. already are studying the effect qigong can have on adults but little is known about the effect on children.

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Fourth-graders in Mrs. Menkedick's class at Clear Creek Elementary School have heard this phrase time and time again from Chunyun "April" Wang, a doctoral student in Indiana University's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation who is teaching the students qigong as part of the Monroe County YMCA Energize Program.

During Wang's 30- to 45-minute lessons with the fourth-graders here and at Highland Elementary School, the youngsters transform into various plants, animals and objects, such as the sunflower, bow and arrow, elephant, sleeping lion, tiger, crane, rocking horse and the tree. The children take a break in their school day to focus on stretching, breathing and flexing muscles that not often are used.

"It makes me more flexible, which is good because my mom tells me to get out of the house and get more flexible," says Katie Chambers.

Qigong is a traditional Chinese exercise that can improve flexibility and general wellness for adults and children through slow body movements, breathing skills and meditation techniques. Wang says it can improve health, help mind-body balance, reduce stress, relieve pain and release muscle tension. She says qigong is suitable for kids because of their playful and curious natures. Qigong can help them develop their imagination and learn mind and body skills that will serve them well as adults.

"Qigong will improve kids' flexibility, concentration, ability to relax, teamwork/team building skills and endurance levels," she says.

Sunflowers and rocking horses call it as they see it

Here's what five sunflowers, rocking horses, sleeping lions and other playful critters had to say about the qigong program.

"Qigong makes me more flexible," says Jurnee Bridgewater.

Many of the students find it interesting and worth trying. When asked to identify their favorite moves, Thomas Tierney and Katie chose the rocking horse, because "you get to roll on your back," according to Thomas, and because "I get to sway back and forth," says Katie.

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Students used muscles that often don't get used.

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And they said qigong is not as foreign to many of them as one would think. Katie, Haley Hobbs and Jurnee see similarities between qigong and gymnastics, cheerleading and yoga. And Haley had heard of qigong from one of her cousins, before Wang began visiting her classroom.

Is it hard?

"Some moves are hard to do," Thomas says. "I can't do the one where you bend backwards, but I can do the rocking horse."

Jackson Fields and Jurnee do not find it too difficult because they are both flexible and Jurnee has been in gymnastics since a young age.

Although not all the students enjoy qigong, the kids admit that qigong does have positive benefits.

"It helps you loose more weight," says Jurnee.

"It helps me get better at baseball and it helps me to run faster," says Jackson.

"You can use muscles that you never used before," says Thomas.

"I am able to get more flexible so I can cheer more," says Haley.

Scholarly aspects of mind body exercise

Wang's work with the children is part of her dissertation research required for her doctoral degree. She majored in qigong at Beijing Sport University, before coming to IU, and began her study with the school children last fall. Wang's classes at Clear Creek and Highland Park Elementary School are taught in conjuction with the Monroe County YMCA's Energize Program. The Energize Program, funded by grants and donations, began in 2006. Its health educators talk with students about the importance of good nutrition and physical activity.

Qigong is not a new concept in the United States, where research is ongoing into its benefits concerning aging, cancer patients and stress reduction. Studies have found it effective in reducing stress in such populations as hospital staff and computer operators and it's been found to lower blood pressure levels in patients with hypertension. Few studies, however, look at how qigong can benefit children, which is why Wang decided to examine this more closely. So far, she likes what she sees.

"I think kids are more relaxed and calm down after practicing qigong," she said. "We have several postures, like sunflower, tree, and elephant, which are designed to develop upper body, lower body, and spine flexibility. Kids should be more flexible if they do the regular practice."

And to Wang's surprise, "almost all the kids love meditation and sleeping lion, which is a simple format of meditation."

How to get started

  • Kids will benefit the most from qigong if their parents perform the exercises, too. "In ancient China, children did it with families as a way to bond and have fun," says Wang, noting that qigong is suitable for all ages. "If the parents get involved, the kids get more involved."
  • She recommends the book Eight Simple Qigong Exercises for Health: The Eight Pieces of Brocade by Jwing-Ming Yang. Wang says texbtooks and DVDs can provide instruction for basic qigong moves.
  • Consistency and mood are more important than number of minutes. "The more families do it the better," Wang says. "But it doesn't have to be long; 15 minutes a day would make a big difference if they are consistent." She said there is no preferred time of day to perform the exercises. "Anytime in the day, whenever you are in the mood or have a need, is the right time."
  • No special gear is needed for qigong. Any type of comfortable, loose-fitting clothing would be the appropriate attire. "A quiet and beautiful outdoor environment will be perfect for health qigong practice."
  • Wang's methods of qigong are catered towards kids and their shorter attention spans. She incorporates moves that imitate animals and plants and tells stories to lead kids into an interesting and new world. Her routines also are shorter than adult routines and involve fewer repetitive moves.

Wang would like school systems to develop programs for children beginning at a young age that combine physical education, nutrition education and mind and body exercises. Such programs, she says, would help kids become physically fit, health educated, more relaxed and well rounded.

--by Ashley Davidson

To read more articles from the School of HPER's Department of Applied Health Science, visit http://newsinfo.iu.edu/cat/page/normal/357.html.