Harnessing Tai Chi's Quiet Strength for Health

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SUNDAY, April 22(HealthDay News) -- Is your chi not flowing right?

Whether or not you subscribe to the theory that the mind and body contain this mysterious, potentially healing force, the ancient martial art known as Tai Chi can still help bring health and fitness into line, experts say.

What's more, unlike more strenuous physical activities, Tai Chi's slow, balanced movements "are very accessible to older adults or patient populations that may have some physical limitations," said Dr. Michael Irwin, a professor of psychiatry and a researcher at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, part of the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine. He's conducted much research on the health benefits of the practice.

He defined Tai Chi, which originated centuries ago in China, as "a series of slow-moving movements that have a meditative quality, incorporating both physical movement as well as meditation."

Practitioners, who swear by Tai Chi's ability to calm body and soul, often talk about chi and the discipline's ability to restore a yin-yang physiological balance to this "life energy." Irwin said there's currently no way to scientifically validate these theories, "but I'm not bothered by that, because there are lots of things in the world that we do not understand because we do not yet have a way to measure them."

He and other researchers have been able to compare the health of Tai Chi devotees against that of more sedentary types, however. Using a standard "Medical Outcomes Scale," researchers have shown "that there are robust improvements in physical function -- simple things like being able to carry groceries, walk, go up stairs," Irwin said.

That's because Tai Chi, while seemingly slow, is surprisingly good exercise. "There are a number of studies on Tai Chi and its aerobic effects that show that metabolism increases, and there's physical conditioning over time," Irwin said.

Benefits extend to other areas, as well. A much-publicized study this year from Emory University in Atlanta found that Tai Chi helped elderly practitioners reduce their risk for potentially lethal falls. Irwin's own work at UCLA found that Tai Chi reduced older people's risk for the immune disorder shingles. Another UCLA study, to be published soon in the journal Gerontology, showed that it boosted the function of the sympathetic nervous system, which has long been tied to good cardiovascular health.

According to Irwin, no one has yet done a study on Tai Chi's effect on depression, although two UCLA studies did note significant improvements in mood in non-depressed people who took up the practice.

Sean Vasaitis is a graduate student at the University of Maryland Medical School in Baltimore and a Tai Chi instructor. He said the martial art isn't "magic" but is, in fact, rooted in balance and physics.

"Understanding that helps you develop and do what you're doing correctly," he said. Typical classes run about 45 minutes to an hour, he said, but can vary in quality.

Vasaitis offered up a few tips for beginners on finding a good class:

  • Consider your goals. Tai Chi can be a way to boost mental and physical fitness, but it can also be an effective method of self-defense, where practitioners use their skills to "throw" opponents.
  • Sit in on a few classes. "It can be difficult to distinguish good and bad Tai-Chi," he said, so a little investigation helps. Some classes are very structured and demand certain tests and uniforms, while others are more informal. "Students should find a class that suits their personality best," Vasaitis said.
  • Look for "hands-on" training. Instructors should do more than just model the correct movements. "The really specific body structures that give Tai Chi its benefits are hard to get unless someone takes you through it, physically putting you into that proper position," he said.
  • Don't be intimidated. Vasaitis said he's seen college athletes have as much trouble -- and success -- in getting Tai Chi moves down as nursing-home residents. "Everyone starts out on the same page," he said, but most will soon learn and enjoy the discipline.

Most people will also gain real health benefits, Vasaitis said.

"I have students who say it's helped their blood pressure, their balance got better, they now get around better," he said. "For younger people, too, their energy level tends to be higher after Tai Chi. I always feel a lot better."

Need more convincing? A study published in the April issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggested that Tai Chi may help prevent the painful skin condition shingles.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles found that older people who performed the slow, graceful movements of Tai Chi had a stronger immune system response against the virus that causes shingles than those who only received health education, the Associated Press reported.

More information

There's more on Tai Chi at the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

SOURCES: Michael Irwin, M.D., Norman Cousins Professor of Psychiatry, Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles; Sean Vasaitis, Tai Chi instructor, Baltimore