When Fran German was diagnosed with an incurable muscle condition that caused exhaustion, weakness, and pain, her future looked bleak. Then, she discovered a gentle form of exercise that restored her strength – qigong.
Movement as Medicine
You’re never going to get better,” a doctor told Fran German. The then-52-year-old had been suffering with severe chronic fatigue and extreme muscle weakness for months. Now, contemplating a future living this way — and that her condition could be fatal — her heart sank. “What kind of life will I have?” she despaired.
“The doctor explained that I had an autoimmune disease called myasthenia gravis, a fancy way of saying I had a problem with the signals sent between my nerves and muscles,” says Fran. “I’d read that in some studies, patients receive a placebo and actually feel better because they think they are taking medication. Well, the day I got my diagnosis, I felt like the doctor gave me a ‘no-cebo.’ I felt hopeless.
“My condition was absolutely debilitating. I suffered from such horrible muscle pain and weakness that some days, I could barely lift my head off the pillow. I was forced to give up my job as a realtor. My husband, Bob, also retired so we could make the most of the time we had left together. But I spent much of my time looking for answers. I visited 11 different doctors. They all said the same thing: ‘You’ll be on medicine the rest of your life. There’s nothing we can do for you.’
“I took high-dose prednisone steroids for 14 years. One doctor even put me on a chemotherapy drug to see if it would put me in remission. It didn’t help. It only scared me, wondering what harm it might cause. Through it all, however, I didn’t give up. I kept looking for ways to boost my energy and I started walking, trying to strengthen my weak muscles.
“One day, while on a trip, my husband and I were walking through a park and we saw a group of older people standing in a circle doing movements as if in slow motion. It was mesmerizing. We didn’t know what they were doing. Noticing us watching, the people kindly invited us to join in. They explained the activity was called ‘qigong,’ a traditional Chinese form of movement similar to tai chi, but without having to memorize long, complicated sequences. We decided to give it a try. The movements felt so good to me. They felt gentle, not strenuous.
“As I repeated the smooth, continuous motions over and over again, it was as if I was in a calming trance. Almost like I was meditating.
“I’d never been good at meditation. I had trouble sitting still. But this form of ‘moving meditation’ I could do. When I learned it was proven to strengthen muscles, improve balance, lower stress, even boost immunity, I dared to wonder, Could it work for me?”
“Once home, I looked for a qigong teacher in my area and started taking group classes with my husband. I also practiced every day at home. As I got into the flow of the movements, I instantly felt my stress level go down. I also immediately noticed my balance and overall energy improving. Week by week, my fatigue and pain improved, making me feel stronger.
“Within just four months, my symptoms faded to the point that I was able to start teaching qigong. My primary physician was amazed by my progress and reduced my medication. Looking at my test results, my neurologist smiled and exclaimed, ‘Well, I won’t be seeing you again!’
“This easy form of exercise, plus my plant-based diet, played such a big role in my health turnaround.
It not only helped erase my muscle weakness, it boosted my immunity. I haven’t been sick — not even a cold — in 15 years! Now I’m on zero medications and have no autoimmune symptoms at all! I actually get calls from my health insurance company — they worry I’m not taking care of myself because I’m an 81-year-old woman who isn’t taking a bunch of prescriptions — it’s funny!
“As for my muscle strength, my husband and I have climbed mountains, literally. Together, we wrote a book called 101 Ways to Be Young at Any Age. We also share free qigong videos on our YouTube channel, ‘Young at Any Age.’ People with autoimmune conditions from around the world thank me for helping them because they too were given no hope.
“Now, 29 years after my diagnosis, I’ve defied the odds. My condition didn’t shorten my life like my doctor once warned. In fact, I’ve outlived four of my doctors … so far!”
How Qigong Builds Muscles and Stabilizes Balance
The slow, continuous movements of qigong increase muscle strength, reduce muscle fatigue and curb stress, says Anna Rostedt Punga, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of clinical neurophysiology at Uppsala University in Sweden and a leading researcher on the muscle condition myasthenia gravis (MG). She adds that the exercise is perfect for patients with muscle weakness and pain who can’t do more intense workouts because it uses low resistance, slow movement, and breathing techniques to build flexibility and endurance.
The payoff? Her studies have shown that gentle exercise helps MG patients significantly improve muscle strength and function, including better balance — perks that anyone practicing qigong can expect. Plus, “The focus on breathing can lower mental stress to increase overall well-being,” says Dr. Rostedt Punga. To get the benefits, find a qigong class in your area. Or try Fran’s routines on her YouTube channel, Young at Any Age.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.