September 4, 2012

Tai Chi: For Me?

I’ve tried many things through the years in my quest for improved health and wellness. There’s been a veritable pharmacy of pills for many conditions. I've tried lots of supplements along the way, but that list is now reduced to three: the serotonin booster 5-HTP, the science-lauded curcumin, and the doctor-suggested Vitamin D. I meditate regularly and happily. My weekly Parkinson’s support group helps me feel connected and upbeat. I've experimented with hypnosis, brain wave music therapy, acupuncture, and reiki. Nowadays, I get physical therapy and make regular visits to the chiropractor.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m a neophiliac: I love trying new things. So, why the heck haven’t I tried tai chi?

Dr. Andrew Weil’s Endorsement
Last Thursday, I saw a piece on natural health guru Dr. Andrew Weil’s blog titled “Tai Chi for a Better Brain.”  (Reminds me of a posting I did recently on studies showing that meditation can lead to a bigger and better brain.)  Weil recapped a study published this past June in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in which a group of Chinese seniors who practiced tai chi three times a week for eight months showed increased brain size, along with improved memory and cognitive function, compared to a similar control group that did not practice tai chi.

Mayo Says YES!
I visited a favorite source -- the Mayo Clinic site -- for additional information. There, the article I found began like this: “If you're looking for another way to reduce stress, consider tai chi... sometimes described as "meditation in motion" because it promotes serenity through gentle movements — connecting the mind and body.”

Mayo staffers describe the types and forms of tai chi, and explain how it has evolved from a martial arts discipline into a very popular form of exercise. They went on: “Regardless of the variation, all forms of tai chi include rhythmic patterns of movement that are coordinated with breathing to help you achieve a sense of inner calm. The concentration required for tai chi forces you to live in the present moment, putting aside distressing thoughts.”

So this sounds just like the benefits I feel from my daily mindfulness meditations, but with some extra cardio, strength, and balance elements thrown in. And like my meditating, you can do this discipline anywhere, anytime. At home, away; day or night; with others or alone. You can take it very slow, or you can pump up the aerobic value. You don’t need any special equipment or clothing.

The article reports that tai chi may very well offer a variety of benefits beyond stress reduction, including:
  • Reducing anxiety and depression 
  • Improving balance, flexibility and muscle strength 
  • Reducing falls in older adults 
  • Improving sleep quality 
  • Lowering blood pressure 
  • Improving cardiovascular fitness in older adult 
  • Relieving chronic pain 
  • Increasing energy, endurance and agility 
  • Improving overall feelings of well-being 
Harvard Catalogues the Benefits
To get yet more info, I turned to another regular, reliable source: Harvard. The article I found began this way:
This gentle form of exercise can prevent or ease many ills of aging and could be the perfect activity for the rest of your life.

Tai chi is often described as "meditation in motion," but it might well be called "medication in motion." There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice, which originated in China as a martial art, has value in treating or preventing many health problems. And you can get started even if you aren't in top shape or the best of health.
The Harvard article included this recap of tai chi's potential benefits:
When combined with standard treatment, tai chi appears to be helpful for several medical conditions. For example: 
Arthritis. In a 40-person study at Tufts University, presented in October 2008 at a meeting of the American College of Rheumatology, an hour of tai chi twice a week for 12 weeks reduced pain and improved mood and physical functioning more than standard stretching exercises in people with severe knee osteoarthritis. According to a Korean study published in December 2008 in Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, eight weeks of tai chi classes followed by eight weeks of home practice significantly improved flexibility and slowed the disease process in patients with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful and debilitating inflammatory form of arthritis that affects the spine.

Low bone density. A review of six controlled studies by Dr. Wayne and other Harvard researchers indicates that tai chi may be a safe and effective way to maintain bone density in postmenopausal women. A controlled study of tai chi in women with osteopenia (diminished bone density not as severe as osteoporosis) is under way at the Osher Research Center and Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Breast cancer. Tai chi has shown potential for improving quality of life and functional capacity (the physical ability to carry out normal daily activities, such as work or exercise) in women suffering from breast cancer or the side effects of breast cancer treatment. For example, a 2008 study at the University of Rochester, published in Medicine and Sport Science, found that quality of life and functional capacity (including aerobic capacity, muscular strength, and flexibility) improved in women with breast cancer who did 12 weeks of tai chi, while declining in a control group that received only supportive therapy.

Heart disease. A 53-person study at National Taiwan University found that a year of tai chi significantly boosted exercise capacity, lowered blood pressure, and improved levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin, and C-reactive protein in people at high risk for heart disease. The study, which was published in the September 2008 Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found no improvement in a control group that did not practice tai chi.  
Heart failure. In a 30-person pilot study at Harvard Medical School, 12 weeks of tai chi improved participants' ability to walk and quality of life. It also reduced blood levels of B-type natriuretic protein, an indicator of heart failure. A 150-patient controlled trial is under way.

Hypertension. In a review of 26 studies in English or Chinese published in Preventive Cardiology (Spring 2008), Dr. Yeh reported that in 85% of trials, tai chi lowered blood pressure — with improvements ranging from 3 to 32 mm Hg in systolic pressure and from 2 to 18 mm Hg in diastolic pressure.

Parkinson's disease. A 33-person pilot study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, published in Gait and Posture (October 2008), found that people with mild to moderately severe Parkinson's disease showed improved balance, walking ability, and overall well-being after 20 tai chi sessions.
 [Update: In a larger study reported this February in the New England Journal of Medicine, 195 people with Parkinson's were divided into three groups. One group took part in an extensive stretching class, another was taught resistance training, and the third group  performed tai chi.  After six months, patients in the tai chi group performed better on a number of measures related to strength, movement control, balance, stride length and reach.  Resistance training also offered some benefits.]
Sleep problems. In a University of California, Los Angeles, study of 112 healthy older adults with moderate sleep complaints, 16 weeks of tai chi improved the quality and duration of sleep significantly more than standard sleep education. The study was published in the July 2008 issue of the journal Sleep. 
Stroke. In 136 patients who'd had a stroke at least six months earlier, 12 weeks of tai chi improved standing balance more than a general exercise program that entailed breathing, stretching, and mobilizing muscles and joints involved in sitting and walking. Findings were published in the January 2009 issue of Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair.
It’s  pretty easy to find tai chi instruction, though experts recommend checking with your doctor first if you’re a senior with health issues. Most instructors will happily let people observe their classes, so potential students can see what’s involved, and if they like the “vibe.”

Check with your senior center, local Y, or community center. The Arthritis Foundation (800-283-7800 or is another resource for finding tai chi classes near you. If you're one of those lucky self-starters, you can find books and videos, athough many prefer the pleasure of sharing the experience with others.

The Iona Senior Center -- where I play bridge on Mondays and meet with my Parkinson's support group on Fridays -- offers several tai chi classes for seniors. One introductory class starts at noon on Fridays, just as my Parkinson's support group concludes. Hmmmmm. Out one door and through another?

Tai Chi and Me
I've thought about it. But -- as I mentioned in my last post about meditation -- I usually end up doing things my own way (not that I couldn't end up doing tai chi my own way, once I learned the basics). Exercise classes have never appealed to me, particularly if they involve anything like dancing or graceful movements. I'm a self-conscious, world-class klutz!

Then, there's the time issue. Mind you, I'm not complaining, but these days, I have three chiropractor appointments a week, a weekly massage, my Monday bridge game, and my Friday Parkinson's support group. Add a lunch date or two every week -- and often a performing arts event -- and it's often hard to come up with one of the things I treasure most: a day with absolutely nothing scheduled.

I have plenty of rationalizations for not taking tai chi classes. But after completing this research, I'm reconsidering my resistance. Stay tuned.

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