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Martial Arts for Cancer Survivors

By Yun Choi Yeung


Research evidence suggests that exercise may be an effective intervention for enhancing quality of life in cancer survivors. But the effects of exercise on biomarkers, cancer recurrence, other diseases, and overall survival are unknown. Martial Arts are recommended as a form of exercise for cancer survivors but there is no relevant study on the subject. In facts, it is difficult to formulate any valid and reliable study because there are many variables in any type of exercise programme. It is now more or less standardized that exercise programmes should include the components of warm up stretching, aerobic, anaerobic, and cool down. In a way, exercise from low-intensity to supervised high-intensity is safe for cancer survivors. The point is to be active, as inactivity is the biggest enemy of cancer survivors.


Tai Chi Chuang (Taijiquan) are often recommended because of the promotion effort made by the Chinese government as a kind of health exercise for everyone in China. The political objective is quantity and not quality, and the requirements for Taijiquan instructors in Taijiquan stations all over China are very low. Maybe this is why the finer things in Taijiquan such as not to use brute force, the use of torso power, rotation of the hip, pushing hand techniques, adherent fighting techniques, etc., were no longer practiced or taught in mass teaching. This is why that thousands of research studies on Taijiquan just to find out that the subjects were not doing Taijiquan at all, as they violated the basic principle of not using any brute force or the shortening of muscle fibres. Since practitioners are using brute force then it is not possible to differentiate Taijiquan from any other light exercise. Actually the techniques in Taijiquan are very difficult to do them properly, and there are many complications when doing them slowly with brute force. There are many reported cases of bad knees and lower back pains resulted in doing Taijiquan. Therefore harmful techniques such as prolonged one legged movements, low crouching down, pushing forward with the rear leg, pushing backward with the front leg, pushing upward with one leg, pushing against the body weight on a rear leg stance, bending the knee in the wrong direction, etc., should be avoided. There is nothing wrong in doing Taijiquan movements or routines as light exercise, after all light exercise is also exercise which is better than inactivity. But once Taijiquan move away from the traditional values of a fighting art without using brute force, it is very difficult to say what it will become.


Qigong exercises are also recommended for the meditation component in additional to the exercise components. In a way this has made scientific researches even more difficult to prove the benefits of Qigong exercises. Furthermore, there are many types of Qigong exercises from sitting meditation to static postures and dynamic exercises. There are reports of some success with the Guo Lin Qigong Groups in China but they are functioning more like support groups then promoting a certain type of Qigong. In any case the founder Guo Lin (1909-1984) was not an expert in Qigong but a cancer survivor who had tried various means to survive.


There are two types of dynamic muscular actions namely concentric contraction and eccentric contraction. Methods with the eccentric component such as plyometrics are getting more and more popular in extreme performances. And stretching exercises are being emphasised in all forms of exercises and sports. Scientists discovered that eccentric contraction of muscle is a cause of muscle damage and delay onset muscle soreness, and there are massive research data on the subject in recent years. Evidences support that eccentric contraction of muscle has additional 30% or more in terms of muscular strength compare to concentric contraction of muscle, increase the production of Interleukin-6 (IL-6) proteins and consume less calcium, does not effected by age, etc. And muscle-derived IL-6 might have some beneficial effects on cancer survivors.


In a study of pure eccentric movement in Chinese Martial Arts it is found that there are many eccentric aerobic and anaerobic techniques. And the problem of muscle damage is avoided by starting from slow to fast and from light to heavy. The idea of non-concentric or not to use brute force is a unique development in Chinese Martial Arts which can trace back to Song Dynasty (960-1279) but technically speaking the idea is not fully refined until more recent development of Baguaquan in the eccentric movement of major muscle groups to generate power in the limbs. Advance learners of Baguaquan can utilize the stored elastic energy of muscles upon stretching. It is possible to utilize the gravitational force of the body falling forward as the front leg relaxed when striking the ground in stepping forward. Furthermore, eccentric contraction can be subdivided into passive and active eccentric contraction and induced recoils from passive and active actions. It is quite an art to manipulate these variables, and it is difficult to differentiate and measure these variables in scientific researches.


Exercises prescribed to cancer survivors can focus on eccentric movement capitalize from Martial arts with the additional strength in stretching. The technique to increase the length of muscle fibre is simply rotational stretching to generate the additional tension on the muscle fibre and increase strength at the same time. For example, a simple palm strike would consist of the followings:


1.Forearm rotating outward with fingers pointing upward

2.Elbow pointing to the ground

3.Shoulder stretching downward

4.Arm stretching forward

5.Rotating the midsection by stretching the abdominal muscles

6.Rotating the hipbone by stretching the buttock and thigh muscles

7.In a forward stance, there will be a combination of passive and active stretching to maintain balance and moving forward

8.Additional stretching can be done by stretch the upper back muscles with chest relaxed, or stretch the abdominal muscles with the lower back muscles relaxed.

This palm strike technique can be performed as a static stretching posture, slowly in low-intensity as a stretching exercise, quickly in higher-intensity as an aerobic exercise, or pushing against a weight as an anaerobic exercise. There are many hand-striking, kicking, blocking, and stepping techniques can be executed as aerobic and anaerobic exercises without brute forces. It is just a question of being more selective in prescribing exercises for cancer survivors.


The advantage of martial arts is the reservoir of techniques aiming at extreme performance, and the case of cancer survivors is that they can be extremely weak. These techniques not only will strengthen them in terms of aerobic and anaerobic fitness but also introduce to them techniques to assist them in their daily activities. And there are lots of torso movements in martial arts which can help cancer survivors to exercise when they are lying down, sitting up, standing up, stepping, or lifting up a weight. In any case, stretching is the best way to loosen up stiff muscles and to encounter muscle fatigues.


The disadvantage of martial arts is the difficulty in differentiating between non-concentric movement and concentric movement. Most people confused light exercise for non-concentric exercise, as light exercise is mostly mixed mode using a bit of concentric and eccentric strengths. Once this is clear then it is not too difficult to breakdown any non-concentric movement in terms of various types of stretching for static stretching, dynamic stretching, aerobic and anaerobic workouts, and recoils.


The training method of non-concentric exercise in Chinese Martial Arts is very sensible starting from light stretching exercise to various degrees of intensities, and workout with an opponent, wooden dummy, or weights without too many changes in techniques. Chinese Martial Arts routines are just a composition of basic techniques and variations for performance or focusing on specific situations. Goods instructors should be in a position to make up repetitive movements and routines to suit the needs of students. Without making any value judgement, Taijiquan is a good example of making up new routines. The Yang Style has 81 forms or sets in 1929, and then it was broken-down into more forms such as 85, 88, 103, etc., without too much changes in the movements. In the 1950s, there is the simplified Taijiquan 24 forms, 48 forms, various competitive routines, etc. The truth is that practitioners proficient in pushing hands should be in a position to use appropriate techniques to adhere, to follow, to neutralize, and to attack simultaneously and continuously. Furthermore, the non-concentric method is also applicable to many other movements. And all these techniques are suitable for enhancing quality of life in cancer survivors.


Martial Arts are aiming at extreme performance by utilizing what is available in one’s body. In the case of the very weak one is also trying to utilize all that is available. And the extra strengths in eccentric contraction of muscles and stored elastic energy of muscles are available simply by learning and making use of them. Therefore learning non-concentric techniques in martial arts can improve and prolong the daily activities of cancer survivors.

Wushudirect will be hosting a series of seminars by Yun-choi Yeung B.A., M.B.A., M.Ed., M.Sc. for information email: