Harnessing the power of an ancient practice

When life stressors started getting the best of her, FIU researcher Gladys Ibañez turned to kung fu to cope. The traditional Chinese martial art was more than a form of fitness for her; the practice became therapy as it trained her to stay calm amidst the chaos of life.

That was nearly a decade ago, and the daily ritual has served Ibañez well. Now the HIV researcher and professor in the Department of Epidemiology within the Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work is looking to transmute what has helped her personally into a professional endeavor that could help others in times of stress and uncertainty.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health within the National Institutes of Health is funding Ibañez with a $600,000 grant as she attempts to reduce the physical and psychological symptoms of HIV in elderly adults through the ancient Chinese mind-body-spirit practice of qigong (pronounced chee-gung).

Qigong dates back approximately 5,000 years and incorporates meditation, controlled breathing and gentle movements that can ultimately cleanse and re-energize the internal organs; the more commercialized healing practice of tai chi was born from the foundations of qigong.

“Kung fu is intimidating for beginners or for those who may think they’re too out of shape. While these perceptions are usually false, we thought a gentler practice would be easier for our demographic to embrace,” said Ibañez.

After more than 15 years of traditional HIV research, this is the first project in which Ibañez will be able to integrate alternative approaches to care into her work.

“I’ve always hoped to do a study on the health benefits of mind-body-spirit approaches such as qigong, yoga and meditation. This project allows me to do just that with an aging HIV community,” Ibañez said. “I’ll be pilot testing my qigong intervention specifically for underserved seniors living with HIV, and I’m eager to see the impact.”

Vanessa Ayala MPH ’17 worked on the study as a graduate student and, later, research assistant. She demonstrates arm movements associated with the practice of qigong.

In the U.S., 50 percent of individuals infected with HIV are older than 50, and this estimate is expected to rise to 70 percent by 2020. There’s a dire need to establish innovative and accessible interventions that can assist older people living with the virus.

At the Midtown Miami location of Borinquen Medical Centers of Miami-Dade, where most patients are low-income and uninsured, there’s a brand-new wellness center space for exercise programs. Here, Ibañez will recruit from a culturally diverse group of existing patients. They will receive one of three versions of care: a full qigong intervention; a sham treatment (guided movements but without a focus on breathing or meditation); or a standard care treatment (typical antiretroviral therapy without any exercise or meditation).

Ibañez is collaborating with Linda Larkey of Arizona State University, who found success in using qigong to improve the health and well-being of breast cancer survivors, and Kristopher Fennie of Stempel College, who will contribute his expertise in data analysis and management.

Larkey’s interest in qigong sprang from her own lifelong practice of yoga and meditation. She used the gentle and easy- to-adopt practices to support patients with issues ranging from hypertension to cancer remission, and the beneficial outcomes were inspiring. Assessing patients before and after the intervention period, including several months out, she found improvement in levels of fatigue, depression and cognitive function.

Larkey utilizes a modified practice that blends qigong with repetitive tai chi movements and breathing techniques. She has employed it successfully in her research and has committed to helping Ibañez implement the same for her study. The two will train Borinquen staff to serve as practice leaders who will run group sessions and teach patients to continue the exercises on their own at home.

“There’s a lot of potential for achieving health benefits among vulnerable older adults, and what’s more, there’s a minimal cost associated with this form of self-care for the patient,” Larkey said. “We want them to learn the philosophy and the techniques so they can better manage their health.”

The novel intervention could address common symptoms such as fatigue and poor mental health as well as low self-esteem in older HIV patients. One of the biggest challenges for the research team is that the population is older and disadvantaged, and the approach may be perceived as too abstract. The pilot study will include recommendations for addressing this challenge.

While HIV medications continue to prolong people’s lives, it remains incumbent on health care practitioners and researchers to work toward bettering other aspects as well — something Ibañez clearly has her eye on.

“Qigong is for promoting health and longevity,” she said. “It’s intended to improve the quality of life for those who do it. I definitely expect qigong to help our HIV patients in many ways.”