Tai Chi: So Many Health Benefits
By Margie Willis
“In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Slowly. Moving and breathing as one. Focus to quiet the mind. Feel the chi in your belly; it is your life force.”
This is Tai Chi in action. You may have come across a Tai Chi class happening, even during bad weather, in a park or covered playground. There is a reason for such dedicated participation. Tai Chi makes you feel good. A friend with lupus, who has been doing tai chi for seven months, says she always feels more relaxed after the class, and her strength and balance have definitely improved. Another participant said, “I always feel taller and lighter after class.”
There are various stories about the origin of Tai Chi. A Taoist Monk in China, named Zhang San Feng, is said by many to be the creator of Tai Chi. The practice dates back over 700 years, some say even up to 1500 years. Chinese martial artists have long used a defensive style of Tai Chi.
Yang style Tai Chi was developed in the 1800s. It consists of a series of meditative movements that have a gentle, flowing, and rhythmic quality. It is a spiritual practice that integrates the mind and body, healing the body and refocusing the chattering “monkey mind.”
People do it to improve a variety of health issues, including balance and strength … and for the sheer joy of movement in a shared activity with friends.
The beauty of Tai Chi is that it is safe, and anyone can do it, even people with chronic conditions such as mobility issues and fatigue. The moves can be easily modified to accommodate all levels of fitness. It can even be done while sitting in a chair.
Many classes warm up with Qigong exercises. They represent a more ancient aspect of Chinese medicine, from which Tai Chi evolved. Tai Chi connects a set series of Qigong exercises by flowing movements. There can be as many as 102 or as few as eight forms.
Why do so many doctors strongly recommend tai chi to their patients?
Tai Chi is a form of exercise that is easy on the joints, and it benefits an astounding number of health issues. Surprisingly, moving very slowly requires more strength and mental focus than you would expect.
Research has shown that Tai Chi can improve quality of life in people with chronic pain, arthritis, lung disease, Parkinson’s disease, and heart failure. It is beneficial in a range of other physical and mental health issues—including bone and muscle strength, joint stability, range of motion, cardiovascular health, high blood pressure, digestive disorders, immune system health, cognitive decline, anxiety and depression. Well controlled scientific studies have documented many of these claims. The most well-documented health benefit is reduction of falls in older people.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three adults over the age of 65 has a fall each year. Numerous large, well-designed studies have shown Tai Chi to reduce falls in seniors by up to 45%. No other type of exercise has been proven to have the same benefit in fall prevention.
Above all other forms of exercise, doctors recommend Tai Chi for people with Parkinson’s disease. In 2012 a study on this group was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was among the first to show that those patients who did Tai Chi had less than half as many falls as groups that practiced other forms of exercise. Participation in Tai Chi showed marked improvement on certain other problems associated with Parkinson’s disease, resulting in more flexibility, smoother movements, and longer strides when walking.
As people age, they are often daunted by how much time they have to devote to body maintenance.
The same holds true for people with lupus, especially those who use prednisone long-term. The drug increases the amount of work required to build or maintain muscle. The older we get, the more we have to work at maintaining our muscle strength and fitness. After middle age, adults lose 3% of their muscle strength every year, on average.
Healthy young people, who break a bone and require bedrest, lose 5% of their muscle mass per week. One study showed an approximate 3- to 6-fold greater rate of muscle loss in bed-ridden older adults. Extended bedrest also results in the loss of bone density.
No wonder doctors are pushing us to do regular exercise! They tell us Tai Chi is one of the best types of exercise for seniors. Let’s hope you find yourself in a Tai Chi class soon. Check with local community colleges, parks and recreation departments, senior centers, and, of course, the Internet.
Marjorie Elaine Willis
Permission to reprint granted.
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