Tai Chi for Health and Fitness

by Rich O’Boyle, Publisher
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The ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi has gained interest in the last few years as a preventative to falls that often lead to broken bones in the frail elderly. Researchers think that the emphasis on swaying and other choreographed movements may help individuals to improve their balance, enhance blood circulation, and ease the pain of arthritis. As an aerobic exercise, it has the added benefit of increasing muscle strength and tone.

Tai chi, also known as “shadow boxing,” combines routines of deep breathing, posturing, stretching, swaying, and other controlled movements combined with meditation. While it is related to martial arts such as karate, it is often called an “internal martial art” because it is graceful and soft, rather than hard and gymnastic. Tai chi is often practiced in groups, so it has the added benefit of increasing socialization.

Researchers theorize that tai chi exercises may increase circulation, which in turn helps to reduce arthritis pain. It also may stimulate the repair of soft joint tissue. Furthermore, researchers have found that performing tai chi exercises may help sedentary seniors to regain physical functioning that they may have lost to inactivity. Another study found that practicing tai chi exercises could reduce dangerous falls by about 50%. Falls can lead to debilitating hip fractures that often herald general decline and loss of mobility.

The National Institutes of Health has funded a study that will examine whether tai chi can help patients who sufferer with the tremors, stiffness and slowed movements of Parkinson's Disease. Another federally funded study is looking into the effects of tai chi on the painful neurological disease, shingles.

Since tai chi involves deep meditation, it is theorized that it can be an aid to stress management. Most studies of tai chi have been small and narrowly focused. Individuals considering any exercise program should consult with a physician and a certified instructor before beginning a new routine.

Origins of Tai Chi

Tai chi, which literally means “moving life force,” originated as a martial art in 14th century China. According to legend, Chang San-feng studied the natural environment, especially the movements of animals, to develop postures that could be used in combat. The names of some exercises bear such evocative names as “wave hands like clouds,” “monkey stepping back,” and “white crane spreads its wings.”

These days, tai chi is practiced more for its impact on health. According to Dr. Peter Uhlmann, M.D., a psychiatrist and tai chi instructor in British Columbia, Canada, Chinese concepts of health and illness differ from our western ideas. The Chinese believe that health and well-being can be influenced by controlling the life force (“qi”) that runs inside all people and around us in the environment. The positive and negative “yin and yang” balance may be influenced by many methods including yoga and the application of selected herbs. Dr. Uhlmann says that tai chi can be used to accumulate qi, store it, and circulate it through the body in balance.

Terry Dunn, a leading tai chi instructor and producer of the "Tai Chi for Health" video series, says that the exercise routines can lead to “deeper self-understanding, greater awareness of life, and the wherewithal to act appropriately in any situation.” For these reasons, tai chi is studied by people of all ages and with all cultural backgrounds.

Exercise Routines and Forms

Classes are increasingly offered at health clubs, senior centers, and local recreation centers. On the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada (but also in other areas) tai chi practitioners gather early in the morning to exercise in parks and open spaces.

Tai chi students usually practice in group classes indoors and outside. Sessions commonly last about one hour and begin with a series of warm-up exercises that emphasize proper breathing techniques, postures, and gentle stretching. Warm-up exercises progress toward gentle loosening of the muscles through swaying, swinging of the arms, and the shifting of weight on the legs.

The instructor guides the class through a series of tai chi movements that together comprise a "form." A form can take up to 20 minutes to complete. At the same time, students are asked to focus on the point just below their navels, believed to be the center from which qi flows. The teacher encourages the class to perform all movements in a slow, meditative manner and to focus on deep breathing. At the end of the class, there is usually a wind-down exercise, relaxation, and meditation.

Many individuals can benefit from self-instruction or combining tai chi techniques with an existing exercise, stretching, and fitness program. However, the maximum benefit would come from the guidance of an experienced instructor who can provide lessons on the nuances of the art form, including special lessons for less mobile or coordinated individuals.

Recommended Reading

- "The Essence of Tai Chi Chuan: The Literary Tradition" by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo, et al.
- "Flowing the Tai Chi Way: A Voyage of Discovery by a Tai Chi Master and His Student" by Peter Uhlmann, M.D.
- "Tai Chi: The Supreme Ultimate Exercise for Health" by Cheng Man-ching, et al.
- "Beginning Tai Chi" by Tri Thing Dang
- "Tai Chi for Beginners: 10 Minutes to Health and Fitness" by Claire Hooten

Magazine Subscriptions

Recommended Videos

- "Tai Chi: 6 Forms, 6 Easy Lessons"
- "Tai Chi for Health: Yang Long Form" with Terry Dunn (highly recommended)
- "Tai Chi for Health: Yang Short Form" with Terry Dunn 

 

Related Articles

- Exercising Care
- Walking Tips for Seniors
- Identifying and Reducing Stress in Your Life

Internet Resources

- International Taoist Tai Chi Society
- Home Page of Peter Uhlmann, M.D.
- Exercise: A Guide from the National Institute on Aging
- Whole Health MD
- Novartis Foundation for Gerontology (Tai chi information)
- National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
- Tai Chi Productions

Sources

- Adler P, Good M, Roberts B, et al. The effects of tai chi on older adults with chronic arthritis pain. Journal of Nursing Scholarship 2000;32(4):377.
- Hain TC. Effects of tai chi on balance. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2000;283(7):864.
- Li F, Harmer P, McAuley E, et al. An evaluation of the effects of tai chi exercise on physical function among older persons: a randomized controlled trial. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 2001;23(2):139-46.
- Wolf SL, Barnhart HX, Kutner NO, et al. Reducing frailty and falls in older persons An investigation of tai chi and computerized balance training. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 1996,44: 489-497.
- Wolfson L, Whipple R, Derby C, et al. Balance and strength training in older adults: Intervention gains and tai chi maintenance. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 1996;44:498-506.

Available from ElderCare Online™           www.ec-online.net           2002 Prism Innovations, Inc.