Are you remembering to calm your mind as well as exercise your body?

Syed Ahsan Raza doing Tai Chi

The benefits of mind-body exercises such as yoga, Qigong, Tai Chi and Pilates are sometimes overlooked in our desire to get fit quick.

Of all the different forms of exercise, mind-body exercises are sometimes overlooked for more strenuous workouts that appear to provide more immediate results, such as weight training (known as resistance exercise) or jogging, cycling or going on the treadmill (known as aerobic exercise).

In fact, researchers last year did an umbrella review (looking at all the studies meeting a certain criteria) of mind-body exercise – looking specifically at how this type of exercise affects the cognitive function of older people – and concluded that: “To promote healthy ageing, mind-body exercise should be used over a prolonged period to complement other types of exercise”. And it has also been studied for potential benefits to recovering stroke patients and cancer survivors.

If you’re aware of the benefits of strengthening and aerobic exercises – but haven’t yet added mind-body routines to your workout – read on to find out more.

From injured to instructor for Syed Ahsan Raza

Syed Ahsan RazaSyed Ahsan Raza, 60, is one of our supporters. He writes:

The proper name of what is commonly known as “Tai Chi”, is Tai Chi Chuan, which means Supreme Ultimate (Tai Chi) Fist (Chuan). It is a martial art which originated in China.

What’s interesting about it is the way it is practised. To start with, it wouldn’t be a martial art if it couldn’t be practised in a fast manner for self-defence. However, it is the internal aspect of this martial art which has proved to be so beneficial for millions of people worldwide.

As a teenager, I was always interested in martial arts and had taken up Karate. However due to an eye injury my mother put a stop to it – no martial art in the world can stand up to a determined Mother!

Fast forward to 1998 when, as a result of a fall, I managed to injure both my knees. Feeling the frustration of not being able to practise other martial arts, I decided to give Tai Chi a go due to the gentle nature of its training. I almost quit after a couple of years as the pain in my knees became too much.

The turning point came when I joined the instructor course. The intensive training actually helped with the pain in my knees and was an eye-opener to what real Tai Chi training is like. I later found out that this was just a trailer. The real film and the enjoyable part was continuing this training – but now with understanding.

Instructor training lasted a year, and it was hard. For me, the most interesting part was when we had to perform a set of moves, one at a time, and the others had to judge these movements pointing out our faults – like in Strictly Come Dancing. You can imagine the tension in each of us when our turn came! Now this was going against the basic principle of Tai Chi, which is to relax.

The instructor training gave me the ability to take a closer look at how people move and behave in normal life, which is quite interesting. I can now judge my movements in any kind of exercise I undertake. I can now do some things that I couldn’t in my youth.

Benefits of Tai Chi Chuan

Tai Chi has been described as “meditation in motion” and, when practised properly and with intent, has been found to have many health benefits:

  • Improves agility, balance and coordination, which can help improve balance and reduce the risk of falls.
  • Improves your range of motion.
  • Improves upper and lower body strength.
  • Reduces stress and has a calming effect.
  • Can help improve cardiovascular health by reducing blood pressure and improving cholesterol levels.
  • Improves mood and makes you feel relaxed.

Tai Chi is a low-impact exercise and can be easily adapted for anyone, from healthy people to those living in wheelchairs or recovering from surgery. It is a great way to stay active, can be practised at any age and can improve your quality of life.

Useful links

> Find a Tai Chi instructor

> The Health Benefits of Tai Chi (blog by Harvard Health Publishing)

> The surprising health benefits of Tai Chi (Just One Thing podcast with Michael Mosley on BBC Radio 4)

Paul’s passion for yoga

Paul SweeneyPaul Sweeney is our IT officer at World Cancer Research Fund. He writes:

My love for yoga started when I joined the classes World Cancer Research Fund offered. Unfortunately, as I started just a couple of months before the pandemic, those came to an abrupt end. Determined to continue, I did the only sensible thing a prospective yogi with an internet connection could do: I looked at YouTube. As with many on this journey I found Adriene (Yoga with Adriene) and was charmed by her chatty manner and lovely dog Benji.  She has routines for everyone and everything.

As lockdown and working from home continued, so did my daily yoga practice. I did lots of Adriene’s routines, including her 30 days of yoga series, and then “cheated” on her by looking at other instructors including Kassandra and Sarah Beth. Thanks to yoga I am now much more flexible and feel generally healthier for it. Anything that gets the body moving is a bonus and I find it helpful to have someone telling me when and how to breathe properly.

Paul Sweeney practising yoga

Thankfully, World Cancer Research Fund’s weekly yoga classes are back up and running with Gemma (Gem & I Yoga) and I always look forward to them. Yoga has now firmly become part of my daily routine and I try to do at least 10–20 minutes a day by following along with my favourite YouTube yoga instructors (links below).

If you are thinking of trying yoga – go for it. There are so many options, from in-person to online classes, you can really find what works for you. I’d just say that if you are starting out, or are nervous or unsure of the poses, then an in-person or Zoom class (like Gemma’s) could be a good idea before continuing online.

Yoga is something I intend to continue with and I will, one day, do the Crow Pose!

I like the following instructors and go back to their channels time and time again:

Diana discovers the key to Qigong

Diana MackieWorld Cancer Research Fund’s Head of Communications, Diana Mackie, writes:

During the long days of lockdown, I started practising Qigong, which is about coordinating the body, breath and mind through different body postures. It brought me some peace of mind and a little extra headspace during that time.

Using the Yoqi channel on YouTube, the instructor, Marissa, brings the concept to life by explaining the origin of the various movements – many of which are related to the flow of “chi” around the body. While this was a new concept to me, I enjoyed the dance-based element of emulating a fountain with your movements, or a shaking tree, and did feel both more relaxed and invigorated afterwards. I was surprised at how hard I was working my muscles, despite the gentle rhythm of the movements, and carried a sense of “Zen” and wellbeing into the rest of my day.

Now that lockdown is well and truly over, I prefer classes at my local gym. That said, if I couldn’t get to the gym for any reason, I’d definitely revisit these online sessions and would recommend Qigong to anyone who wants a low-impact holistic exercise routine.

Penny takes it slow with Pilates

Séamus doing Pilates

Penny WoodsPenny Woods is World Cancer Research Fund’s Digital Content Manager. She writes:

All the mind-body exercises reviewed so far have their origins in ancient Indian (yoga) and Chinese (Tai Chi and Qigong) spirituality and philosophy. Pilates is much newer (it dates from the 19th century) and originated in Germany, where the young, sickly Joseph Pilates researched a wide range of exercise and strengthening routines from east and west, in an attempt to make himself strong. It was called Controlology – only from the 1970s in the UK did this mind-body exercise become known by the founder’s name.

So what is it? Pilates – used by dancers and athletes around the world – focuses on lengthening and strengthening your muscles through slow movements and holding positions for a short period of time. It’s low impact, and gentle on joints and on people recovering from injury or illness. It emphasises balance, control and relaxation.

So much relaxation, in fact, that I found it hard to stay awake. Admittedly I was trying out Pilates via a DVD (yes, an actual DVD): Darcey Bussell’s Pilates for Life. Scenes of Bussell moving gently on sunlit sands, with the soft sound of the waves rolling in the background, probably didn’t do much to stimulate me but overall, it was all a little slow. I still felt good after a 45-minute session and the main pros were:

  • Stretching muscles I didn’t know I had.
  • Feeling in control and pain-free.
  • All the exercises were child-friendly (see picture above!) and easy to understand.
  • A focus on posture and the core – especially for someone who spends a lot of time hunched over a desk.

But I missed the burn and sweat that comes from a jog. And even though jogging isn’t a mind-body exercise, there’s lots of evidence that any level of activity can be good for our mental health. It’s a question of finding something that suits your body and your schedules.


If you’ve been inspired to try Tai Chi, yoga, Qigong or Pilates, let us know. And if you’d like support to kickstart your healthy living, sign up for Activ8, our free, 8-week programme towards better health.

Cancer Prevention Action Week

Join us on 19–25 February for Cancer Prevention Action Week – our annual campaign focusing on ways you can make a difference and reduce your cancer risk, as well as helping your friends and family too. This year, we’re focusing on surprising, new and unexpected ways to be more active in your daily life.

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