What are the benefits of tai chi?

In China, it is believed that tai chi candelay aging and prolong life, increase flexibility and strengthen muscles andtendons, and aid in the treatment of heart disease, high blood pressure,arthritis, digestive disorders, skin diseases, depression, cancer, and many other illnesses. Unfortunately,there hasn't been a good deal of scientific evidence to support all of theseclaims. In a special study of tai chi called a meta-analysis, where manystudies on one subject are reviewed, the author concludes that although thereis some evidence to support the positive effects of tai chi on health, fitness, and balanceand falling, most of the studies are limited by small numbers of subjects andwide variation in the type and duration of tai chi used. With that said, hereare some of the documented benefits.

Balance and falling- Most of the research on tai chi has been donein older individuals in the area of balance and fall prevention. Thisarea of research is important because fall-related injuries are the leadingcause of death from injury and disabilities among older adults. The mostserious fall injury is hip fracture; one-half of all older adults hospitalizedfor hip fracture never regain their former level of function. Because tai chimovements are slow and deliberate with shifts of body weight from one leg tothe other in coordination with upper body movements (sometimes with one leg inthe air), it challenges balance and one could speculate that it would helpimprove balance and reduce fall frequency. This has been shown in someresearch.

One study compared men age 65 and older whohad more than 10 years of experience practicing tai chi and no involvement inany other regular sports and physical activity, with similar-aged men who hadnot practiced tai chi or any other physical activities (they were sedentary).It was found that the men who studied tai chi performed better on tests ofbalance, flexibility, and cardiovascular function. In another study involving22 men and women aged 22 to 76 years with mild balance disorders,it was found that eight weeks of tai chi training significantly improvedfunction on a standard balance test (called the Romberg test).

Fear of falling and improvement inself-confidence - In an interesting twist on studies offalling, researchers found that the frequency of fear of falling was reduced from56% to 31% in a large group of adults 70 years and older who practiced tai chiregularly. Confidence about not falling, and self-confidence in general, may bean unintended benefit of tai chi but one that is certainly worth pursuing. In asimilar tai chi study of older adults, 54% of the subjects who practiced taichi attributed their improved sense of confidence to improved balance. Theauthors concluded that "when mental as well as physical control isperceived to be enhanced, with a generalized sense of improvement in overallwell-being, older persons' motivation to continue exercising alsoincreases."

Strength and endurance - A recent study of adults in their 60s and70s who practiced tai chi three times a week for 12 weeks (60-minute classes)were given a battery of physical-fitness tests to measure balance, muscularstrength and endurance, and flexibility before and after the 12 weeks.Statistically significant improvements were observed in all balance, muscularstrength and endurance, and flexibility measures after six weeks, and theyincreased further after 12 weeks. The authors of the study concluded that taichi is a potent intervention that improved balance, upper- and lower-bodymuscular strength and endurance, and upper- and lower-body flexibility in olderadults.

Aerobic capacity - Aerobic capacity diminishes as we age, butresearch on traditional forms of aerobic exerciseshow that it can improve with regular training. In another meta-analytic study,researchers looked at seven studies focusing on the effects of tai chi onaerobic capacity in adults (average age 55 years). The investigators found thatindividuals who practiced tai chi for one year (classical yang style with 108postures) had higher aerobic capacity than sedentary individuals around thesame age. The authors state that tai chi may be an additional form of aerobic exercise.

Walking speed decreases with age and research suggeststhat it may be associated with an increased risk of falling. In only one study,however, was it found that individuals who practiced tai chi walkedsignificantly more steps than individuals who did not. Walking is clearlyassociated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and otherchronic illness, and so if tai chi can improve walking, then it's certainlyworth giving it a try.

Fibromyalgia - Fibromyalgia (FM) is one of the most common musculoskeletaldisorders and is associated with high levels of impaired health and painfulsymptoms that frequently flair up without relief. The cause of FM is unknown,and there is no known cure. In a study of 39 subjects with FM who practiced taichi twice weekly for six weeks (one-hour classes), it was found that FMsymptoms and health-related quality of life improved significantly after thestudy. This should be good news for individuals who suffer from this disorder.

Stress - The demands of living are stressful for adults of all ages.Although one can't point to studies showing a reduction in stress from practicing tai chi (although inone study subjects who practiced tai chi did report that mental control was oneof the benefits), the breathing, movement, and mental concentration required ofindividuals who practice tai chi may be just the distraction you need from yourhectic lifestyle. The mind-body connection is one that deserves attention, asit has been reported that breathing coordinated with body movement and eye-handcoordination promote calmness. I know that when I practice yoga or tai chi, theinner sense of peace and calm is indisputable, and so I suggest that you givetai chi a chance if you're looking for a creative and physically active way toreduce how you mentally and physically respond to stress.

Some more reasons to practice tai chi:

·        Movements arelow-impact and gentle and put minimal stress on your muscles and joints.

·        The risk of injury isvery low.

·        You can do itanywhere, anytime.

·        It requires verylittle space (no excuses apartment dwellers!) and no special clothing orequipment.

·        You do it at your ownpace.

·        It's noncompetitive.

·        It can be done ingroups or by yourself (find a tai chi instructor to come to your workplace at lunchhour!).

·        There are lots ofmovements to keep you interested, and as you become more accomplished you canadd those to your routine.


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