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Tai Chi – An Ancient Healer

February 21, 2009 Written by JP       [Font too small?]

Have you ever seen a group of people practicing the ancient art of Tai Chi? The first time I was exposed to it, I recall thinking that it seemed like a combination of slow motion martial arts and a rather stationary form of dance. It struck me as being beautiful, but also quite exotic. A kind secret ritual that I couldn’t possibly understand.

Tai Chi

Fortunately, the world has become a smaller place in many ways. The wisdom of far away teachings can now easily spread beyond any man-made borders and regularly enter the lives of people of all ages and cultures. This is certainly true of Tai Chi.

What it is and What it Does

Tai Chi is a mind-body exercise that focuses on slow and deliberate motions, rather than aerobic or resistance type exertion (like most Western forms of physicality). In this practice, you follow the postures and movements that an instructor gives as an example. Each new move flows into the next. It’s a continuous set of actions that progress in a gentle manner.

There is no competition or measure of success or failure in Tai Chi. You simply do your best to follow along and perform the moves set forth by your teacher. The goal is try to replicate each motion with good technique. Because of this, it’s really not vital that you be particularly strong or flexible in order to take part in this exercise.

Both traditional and modern records indicate that Tai Chi may be helpful in reducing stress, improving mental concentration, promoting flexibility and good posture. But regular users of this craft often report and exhibit other health benefits. This observation has lead to the scientific investigation of this age-old art. In today’s blog, I’m going to examine three recent studies that exemplify the potential of Tai Chi in improving general health and quality of life.

Study #1 – Tai Chi and Cardiovascular Health (link)

53 seniors with high cholesterol recently participated in a study to determine if Tai Chi could improve heart health. About half of the group took part in a year-long Tai Chi training program. The other half continued receiving their typical medical care.

At the beginning and end of the study, all the participants were tested to determine their aerobic capacity (ability to exercise) and various markers associated with heart health. The group that learned and practiced Tai Chi showed significant changes in every area of health that was tested. Specifically, here’s what the researchers found:

  • An improvement in oxygen usage/aerobic capacity, ie. allowing for more physical activity, without getting “winded”/”out of breath”.
  • Reductions in blood pressure, C-reactive protein (a marker for inflammation), LDL and total cholesterol, insulin and trigylcerides were found in the Tai Chi group. All of the changes are highly desirable in terms of reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
  • The group receiving the usual care (no Tai Chi) displayed a worsened state of oxygen usage/aerobic capacity and no significant changes in their cardiovascular health markers.

Study #2 – Tai Chi and Sleep Quality (link)

Many people suffer from an inability to sleep soundly and consistently. This is evidenced by the number of advertisements on TV and in magazines that are promoting over-the-counter and prescription sleep medications. According to a recent trial, Tai Chi may offer a safer and healthier alternative to such medications. A trial involving 112 volunteers with chronic sleep complaints offers proof.

Half of the group was taught Tai Chi over the course of 16 weeks. Afterward, their progress was followed for an additional 9 weeks. The other half of the group was provided health counseling about proper “sleep hygiene”.

The Tai Chi group showed a marked improvement in many measures of sleep including : a) general sleep quality, b) habitual sleep efficiency, c) sleep duration, and d) reduced sleep disturbance.

The authors of the study concluded that, “Tai Chi can be considered a useful nonpharmacologic approach to improve sleep quality in older adults with moderate complaints and, thereby, has the potential to ameliorate sleep complaints possibly before syndromal insomnia develops.”

Study #3 – Tai Chi and Overall Health (link)

This final study utilized a new, more basic form of Tai Chi called STEP (Simplified Tai Chi Exercise Program). It was developed especially for senior citizens who may need extra consideration when beginning any exercise regimen.

In this trial, 41 senior men completed a 6 month course of STEP. They practiced this form of Tai Chi three times a week in 50 minute sessions. Testing was given prior to and after the treatment period. Here’s what the testing revealed:

  • There was a significant drop in blood pressure by the end of the trial.
  • Physical strength was improved, as measured by an increase in “hand-grip strength”.
  • An improvement in lower body flexibility was also noted.

In conclusion, the researchers recommend that, “STEP be incorporated as a floor activity in long-term care facilities to promote physical health of older adults.”

I think Tai Chi is a valuable practice for a number of reasons. Historical and modern evidence clearly show that it can directly impact physical health. But more than that, it helps to connect and focus the mind on promoting the health of the body. Our minds can and should be a major player in our health maintenance and promotion. Tai Chi can also bring about a sense of community because it is rarely practiced in isolation. Sharing an interesting and productive activity with others will likely spawn other life enhancing experiences as well. In my opinion, all these clues point to a therapy that has true holistic merit.

Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!

Be well!

JP

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5 Comments & Updates to “Tai Chi – An Ancient Healer”

  1. Kevin Says:

    I truly believe in Tai Chi (Taijiquan). A college roommate was very good at it, he tried to teach everyone :-) , unfortunately I didn’t take the chance to learn from him…Somehow I thought it was for seniors but actually not.

  2. JP Says:

    It’s never too late to learn, Kevin!

    Be well!

    JP

  3. JP Says:

    Update: Tai chi improves mental health and sociability in adolescents …

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25721879

    Int J Psychol. 2015 Mar;50(2):101-5.

    The beneficial effect of Tai Chi on self-concept in adolescents.

    Previous research has documented the beneficial effect of Tai Chi, but most of the studies focused on elders and patients with specific health conditions. The aim of the study was to test whether Tai Chi can help to improve self-concept in adolescents with a longitudinal study. The sample comprised 160 students from a Chinese middle school; half of students formed the experimental group and the rest formed the control group. A 1-year Tai Chi intervention was delivered in 60-minute sessions, five times a week. Both groups were instructed to complete the measure of self-concept at the beginning and end of the intervention. Statistical analysis shows the significant reduction of good behaviour, intellectual and school status, popularity and anxiety in the experimental group compared with the control group. The results suggest that the Tai Chi intervention could improve self-concept in adolescents.

    Be well!

    JP

  4. JP Says:

    Update 06/06/15:

    http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1807-59322015000300157&lng=en&nrm=iso&tlng=en

    Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2015 Mar;70(3):157-61.

    Analysis of static and dynamic balance in healthy elderly practitioners of Tai Chi Chuan versus ballroom dancing.

    OBJECTIVE: To determine whether Tai Chi Chuan or ballroom dancing promotes better performance with respect to postural balance, gait, and postural transfer among elderly people.

    METHODS: We evaluated 76 elderly individuals who were divided into two groups: the Tai Chi Chuan Group and the Dance Group. The subjects were tested using the NeuroCom Balance Master¯ force platform system with the following protocols: static balance tests (the Modified Clinical Tests of Sensory Interaction on Balance and Unilateral Stance) and dynamic balance tests (the Walk Across Test and Sit-to-stand Transfer Test).

    RESULTS: In the Modified Clinical Test of Sensory Interaction on Balance, the Tai Chi Chuan Group presented a lower sway velocity on a firm surface with open and closed eyes, as well as on a foam surface with closed eyes. In the Modified Clinical Test of Sensory Interaction on Unilateral Stance, the Tai Chi Chuan Group presented a lower sway velocity with open eyes, whereas the Dance Group presented a lower sway velocity with closed eyes. In the Walk Across Test, the Tai Chi Chuan Group presented faster walking speeds than those of the Dance Group. In the Sit-to-stand Transfer Test, the Tai Chi Chuan Group presented shorter transfer times from the sitting to the standing position, with less sway in the final standing position.

    CONCLUSION: The elderly individuals who practiced Tai Chi Chuan had better bilateral balance with eyes open on both types of surfaces compared with the Dance Group. The Dance Group had better unilateral postural balance with eyes closed. The Tai Chi Chuan Group had faster walking speeds, shorter transfer times, and better postural balance in the final standing position during the Sit-to-stand Test.

    Be well!

    JP

  5. JP Says:

    Updated 12/26/15:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26702640

    Arthritis Res Ther. 2015 Dec 24;17(1):380.

    The beneficial effects of Tai Chi exercise on endothelial function and arterial stiffness in elderly women with rheumatoid arthritis.

    BACKGROUND: Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has been known to be associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). The aim of this study was to investigate the effects of Tai Chi exercise on CVD risk in elderly women with RA.

    METHOD: In total, 56 female patients with RA were assigned to either a Tai Chi exercise group (29 patients) receiving a 3-month exercise intervention once a week or a control group (27 patients) receiving general information about the benefits of exercise. All participants were assessed at baseline and at 3 months for RA disease activity (Disease Activity Score 28 and Routine Assessment of Patient Index Data 3), functional disability (Health Assessment Questionnaire), CVD risk factors (blood pressure, lipids profile, body composition, and smoking), and three atherosclerotic measurements: carotid intima-media thickness, flow-mediated dilatation (FMD), and brachial-ankle pulse wave velocity (baPWV).

    RESULTS: FMD, representative of endothelial function, significantly increased in the Tai Chi exercise group (initial 5.85 ± 2.05 versus 3 months 7.75 ± 2.53 %) compared with the control group (initial 6.31 ± 2.12 versus 3 months 5.78 ± 2.13 %) (P = 1.76 × 10-3). Moreover, baPWV, representative of arterial stiffness, significantly decreased in the Tai Chi exercise group (initial 1693.7 ± 348.3 versus 3 months 1600.1 ± 291.0 cm/s) compared with the control group (initial 1740.3 ± 185.3 versus 3 months 1792.8 ± 326.1 cm/s) (P = 1.57 × 10-2). In addition, total cholesterol decreased significantly in the Tai Chi exercise group compared with the control group (-7.8 ± 15.5 versus 2.9 ± 12.2 mg/dl, P = 2.72 × 10-2); other changes in RA-related characteristics were not significantly different between the two groups. Tai Chi exercise remained significantly associated with improved endothelial function (FMD; P = 4.32 × 10-3) and arterial stiffness (baPWV; P = 2.22 × 10-2) after adjustment for improvement in total cholesterol level.

    CONCLUSION: Tai Chi exercise improved endothelial dysfunction and arterial stiffness in elderly women with RA, suggesting that it can be a useful behavioral strategy for CVD prevention in patients with RA.

    Be well!

    JP

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