Ancient Practice, Modern Medicine

Whether recovering from an injury or making a first foray into fitness, folks of all ages have found that tai chi delivers dramatic results for body, mind and spirit.

Emma Jean McKinin could have made plenty of excuses to avoid exercise. After all, the Missouri grandmother is 81 and has achy knees. But instead, she took on a new challenge: tai chi. “There’s no doubt this has helped me stave off the effects of arthritis,” says McKinin, who attends tai chi classes six days a week. “I think all of my joints are more flexible now.”

Tai chi, often described as “meditation in motion,” offers a host of benefits for mind, body and soul: better balance, lower blood pressure, stronger joints, reduced stress, and possibly even a stronger immune system and improved moods. The smooth, simple movements make it especially attractive to those with fitness barriers, such as older people, and those who are out of shape or dealing with a medical condition.

“It’s extremely safe and gentle,” says Peter Wayne, PhD, director of research at the New England School of Acupuncture in Watertown, Mass., and founder of the Tree of Life Tai Chi Center in Boston. “It’s adaptable to people with limitations.”

Powerful Moves

Tai chi was originally developed in China many hundreds of years ago as a form of martial arts practice that harnesses internal energy. It emphasizes slow, deliberate movements, deep breathing, postural alignment, and the integration of mind and body completely focused on the task. The Chinese believe that it cultivates “Qi” (pronounced chee), the life energy that is essential for overall health.

Tai chi’s graceful and gentle motions, reflected in the names of specific movements such as “grasping the sparrow’s tail” and “white crane spreads its wings,” make it accessible to people who might otherwise have difficulty exercising, including those with cardiovascular, orthopedic or neurological conditions. “This is the only martial art you can get better at as you get older,” says Sandy Matsuda, PhD, tai chi instructor and an assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

But tai chi is more than just a rehab tool. It’s an option for anybody interested in overall health. “It’s an ideal exercise for lifelong well-being,” says Tricia Yu of Madison, Wis., creator of the Tai Chi Fundamentals Program and author of Tai Chi Mind and Body (DK Publishing, 2003). “It’s moderately aerobic and easy on the joints.”

Graceful Aging

Tai chi offers many physical benefits that can help offset the effects of aging. Studies have shown that it improves blood pressure, posture, balance, coordination, range of motion, and muscle strength and definition. It can help people feel more relaxed and energetic, and some research has also found that it can delay bone loss in postmenopausal women.

The risk of falling — a potentially devastating mishap for the elderly — is substantially reduced with the practice of tai chi. One landmark study of 200 people age 70 and older conducted by researchers at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Ga., found that a 15-week tai chi class reduced the risk of falling by a whopping 47.5 percent.

Steven L. Wolf, PhD, professor of rehabilitation medicine and geriatrics at Emory University School of Medicine, who led the study, believes that the reduction is not necessarily due to increased strength or endurance. Rather, he thinks the mental visualization of movement is the key to better awareness and coordination.

“The visual imagery of tai chi provides people an idea, an image, of what they should be doing to control their balance when confronted with possible stumbles or trips in everyday life,” Wolf says.

Peaceful as it appears, this powerful body-mind exercise also seems to enhance one crucial fighting skill — the immune response. A separate study by researchers at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute found that elderly adults who enrolled in a 15-week tai chi class showed, on average, a 50 percent increase in resistance to the varicella-zoster virus, which causes shingles, a viral infection that causes a painful rash. Energy and sense of well-being also increased. Gains were most dramatic in those with the poorest health.

A Safer Alternative

Tai chi has also proven effective in fending off another demon: bad moods. It combines exercise, meditation and social contact — all activities known to brighten our mental outlook. It teaches mind and body awareness in the present moment — often termed “mindfulness” — and trains practitioners not to worry about the past or future.

Studies have demonstrated that tai chi lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol and reduces tension, depression, anger, fatigue and mood disturbances. “I’ve had people tell me they took my class and got off medication for depression,” Yu says. Similarly, tai chi has been shown to help people cope with chronic medical conditions. A 2003 South Korean study of elderly women with osteoarthritis found that those who enrolled in a 12-week tai chi program had a significant drop in perceived pain and stiffness in their joints.

Kay Wright, 62, of Columbia, Mo., says the meditative movements of tai chi help manage her pain from osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. She describes a warm, positive energy flowing through her body that remains with her throughout the day. “My personal theory is that the pain reduction occurs because my mind is so focused on my breathing and body awareness that there is no room in my brain for the pain sensations,” Wright says.

Heart patients are increasingly prescribed tai chi as a safe cardiovascular exercise. Other types of exercise often pose a dilemma for these patients because they can cause fatigue and shortness of breath. Avoiding exercise, however, can exacerbate their problems. Tai chi offers a safe alternative.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School’s Osher Institute and the New England School of Acupuncture conducted a study of 30 heart-failure patients, half of whom took an hourlong tai chi class twice a week and practiced at home. After three months, the tai chi patients could walk farther without getting breathless and reported better quality of life than those who didn’t take the class. There was another good sign in those patients who did tai chi: lower levels of B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP), a blood-borne substance that rises as heart health worsens.

Research into tai chi has taken off in recent years, yet several questions remain unsettled. For example, a growing number of studies show it improves cardio-respiratory function, even though the movements do not appear vigorous enough to do so. “Both the quantity and quality of tai chi research is increasing,” says Wayne, of Boston’s Tree of Life Center, “and researchers will soon have a better understanding of how tai chi works and which conditions it is effective in treating.”

As Western medicine is gradually validating one benefit after another of this mystical Eastern tradition, this much remains clear: Tai chi strengthens the body and soothes the mind. “Where else,” asks octogenarian McKinin, “are you going to get both?”

Kermit Pattison has written for The New York Times, GQ and several fitness magazines.

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