BENEFITS OF TAI CHI
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Is Tai Chi the Ultimate Exercise?
by Frank Petrillo Jr.
No one disputes the importance of regular exercise. Unfortunately, there are so many fitness programs available today, the general public is often confused as to which are the best. Consequently, they are the willing guinea pigs of every fitness fad that comes along.
The Chinese have always maintained that inactivity is the major cause of illness. Thus, they have developed numerous systems of medical gymnastics both to cure as well as prevent disease. Of the many exercises they have devised, they consider the martial art tai chi Chuan to be the best.
Advantages of Tai Chi
Tai chi Chuan has many distinct advantages over other types of exercise. The biggest shortcoming of most systems of physical fitness is that they service only part of the body. They concentrate on certain muscles or muscle groups, while neglecting others entirely.
For example, isometric exercises tense one set of muscles against another set or an immovable object. Because this is a one-dimensional exercise, the benefits are minimal.
Another problem with isometrics is there is really no way to measure the correct amount of exercise. Unlike callisthenics or weightlifting, you cannot simply increase the number of repetitions and expect results. Recent evidence has also found that isometric exercises render joints more vulnerable to injuries.
Callisthenics produce a wide range of motion and give the muscles more staying power than isometrics. Unfortunately, callisthenics also concentrate on only individual muscles and thus have little benefit on overall health. This is also true with weightlifting.
Tai chi, on the other hand, brings into play every part of the body and benefits all bodily parts, not just the musculoskeletal system.
Other Benefits of Tai Chi
Scientific research conducted at the Medical Academy of Shanghai, the Tangshan Medical Centre and Bellevue Hospital in New York City has shown that tai chi Chuan stimulates the central nervous system, lowers blood pressure, relieves stress and gently tones muscles without strain. It also enhances digestion, elimination of wastes and the circulation of blood. Moreover, tai chi's rhythmic movements massage the internal organs and improve their functionality.
Perhaps tai chi's greatest attribute, however, is the fact it channels the flow of chi (intrinsic energy) through the body's meridians. According to traditional Chinese medicine, as long as this flow is uninhibited, a person will remain healthy. If the flow of chi becomes obstructed or unbalanced, illness will result. The correct practice of tai chi Chuan guides the individual's chi through the meridians and restores its balance throughout the body. None of the aforementioned exercises offers any of these benefits.
Tai Chi vs. Aerobic Exercise
Many people believe that tai chi Chuan does not develop the same degree of cardiovascular fitness as high-impact exercises, such as jogging, rope-jumping, cycling or aerobic dancing. This is not true, however.
In 1978, noted tai chi instructor Lawrence Galante and an associate conducted an experiment to determine whether tai chi Chuan is effective in stimulating cardiovascular development. They used 25 tai chi students, ranging in age from 20 to 60 years old, as their models. The students had been studying the yang-style tai chi short form for a period of one to seven years. Galante and his assistant monitored the pulse rate, blood pressure and heart rate of all the students before and after they practiced the form. In all cases, the researchers found that if the form was practiced in a low stance, great cardiovascular stimulation occurred-between 60-80 percent of the maximum heart rate established by the American Heart Association (AHA). On the other hand, if the tai chi movements were performed in a high stance, there was very little heart stimulation (less than 60 percent of the maximum heart rate). However, for people who suffer from high blood pressure, or those recovering from heart attacks or heart surgery, the high stance is a better option. According to Galante, a person can easily meet the standards set by the AHA by practicing tai chi Chuan three times a day.
Dr. John Painter, a Fort Worth, Texas based teacher of internal Chinese martial arts, claims that "When the movements of tai chi Chuan are performed quickly or in a lower formed stance, they have the same beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system as jogging or high-impact aerobics, but without the stress and strain."
According to Painter, greater physical stimulation can be achieved by performing the movements slowly while wearing weights on the ankles, arms or body.
Although some doctors claim high impact physical activities are the best health-building exercises, a growing number of medical experts believe that the hazards of their long-term practice outweigh the benefits.
According to psychologist Dr. Jo Ann Hunter Farr, high-impact aerobics can produce health benefits over the short term, but the long-term implications of such exercises are irreparable damage to the joints and internal organs. Vigorous walking or tai chi practice, she claims, are much safer forms of exercise and offer the same health benefits as high-impact exercises.
Dr. Wen Zee, a retired cardiologist in Shanghai, believes tai chi is "an incomparable exercise because it never accelerates the heart rate. Exercises such as running and jogging can injure the heart."
Many other medical experts are warning that strenuous exercise may shorten a person's life. According to John Hall, who writes a medical column for an internal Chinese martial arts magazine, for a fitness program to be conducive to long life and health, it must take into account the balancing of body fat levels as well as the other necessary factors for proper exercise. "The ideal fitness program will provide some form of consistent, progressive, sustained movement of the legs, torso and arms to benefit and improve the flexibility, strength, stamina and aerobic potential of all [bodily] systems," Hall asserts. "At the same time, the exercise program must help to ward off obesity without exceeding the capacity for recovery. Tai chi Chuan...more than adequately meets these requirements."
Another problem with high-impact exercises is they are incomplete physical activities. Aside from the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal gains, they benefit none of the other bodily systems. Tai chi, however, has a salubrious effect on all bodily systems. Furthermore, aerobic exercises do not have any of the other health benefits of tai chi Chuan.
Finally, tai chi may be practiced by virtually anyone, regardless of age. This is not the case with high-impact exercises. In fact, doctors recommend that no one of middle or old age engage in any of these activities without first undergoing a complete physical examination.
Tai Chi vs. Yoga
The postures of hatha yoga provide many of the same health benefits as tai chi Chuan. Unfortunately, most of the yoga positions are held for three minutes or longer, which can be very taxing on the body. Brief rest periods are therefore needed. Tai chi practice, on the other hand, does not require any rest period because the postures change too quickly to tire the body.
Yogic inverted postures, such as the headstand and shoulder stand, offer two advantages not found in tai chi Chuan. First, they relieve the gravitational pressure on the internal organs and glands. And second, they ease the strain on the heart caused by having to pump blood against the force of gravity. Yoga exercises, however, do little to promote cardiovascular endurance.
Moreover, many people cannot perform certain yoga exercises because of health problems. Tai chi Chuan, in contrast, may be practiced in virtually any state of health.
The yoga breathing techniques, known as pranayama, have many health benefits. They increase energy levels within the body, strengthen the immune system as well as the internal organs and glands, reduce stress, purify the body and improve memory. They also enhance the cellular expulsion of carbon dioxide, increase arterial circulation to the brain, reduce levels of lactic acid in the muscles, and stimulate intestinal peristalsis.
Unfortunately, if these exercises are practiced incorrectly, they can cause serious mental disturbances. Tai chi Chuan does not present these problems. In tai chi, deep breathing is never imposed on the student; it is developed step by step. The student learns to gradually coordinate his breathing with the movements. This is perhaps the greatest advantage tai chi has over yoga.
One final advantage of tai chi is that it can also be used for self-defence.
From The American Cancer Society
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese form of martial arts. It is a mind-body, self-healing system that uses movement, meditation, and breathing to improve health and well being.
Research has shown tai chi is useful as a form of exercise that may improve posture, balance, muscle mass and tone, flexibility, stamina, and strength in older adults. Tai chi is also recognized as a method to reduce stress that can provide the same cardiovascular benefits as moderate exercise, such as lowered heart rate and blood pressure.
How is it promoted for use?
People who practice the deep breathing and physical movements of tai chi report it makes them feel more relaxed, younger, agile, and helps their circulation. Its slow, graceful movements, accompanied by rhythmic breathing, relax the body as well as the mind. Research has found that tai chi can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. See Qigong and Yoga for other Eastern methods of exercise. There is also evidence that tai chi is particularly suited for older adults, or for others who are not physically strong or healthy.
Proponents claim tai chi balances the flow of vital energy or life force called qi (or chi), which serves to prevent illness, improve general health, and extend life. It is also based on the theory of yin and yang (interaction of opposite forces). Practitioners claim tai chi is designed to balance yin and yang forces to achieve inner harmony.
What does it involve?
Tai chi students begin by learning a series of gentle, deliberate movements called forms. Each form contains between 20 to 100 moves, and requires up to 20 minutes to complete. Each form derives its name from nature, for example, "Wave Hands Like Clouds," or "Grasping the Bird's Tail." In order to balance the yin and yang, the movements are practiced in pairs of opposites. For example, a turn to the right follows one to the left. While performing these exercises, the individual is urged to pay close attention to his or her breathing, which is centred in the diaphragm. Tai chi relies entirely on technique rather than strength or power. Meditative concentration is focused on a point just below the navel, from which it is believed qi radiates throughout the body.
Tai chi is taught in many health clubs, schools, and recreational facilities. Practitioners believe that daily practice is necessary in order to get the most benefit. Once an individual has mastered a form, it can be practiced at home.
What is the history behind it?
Tai chi is based on the philosophy of Taoism, a Chinese belief system first developed in the 6th century BC that also includes qigong and acupuncture (see Qigong and Acupuncture). Taoism includes beliefs in the existence of qi and the yin and yang. Tai chi originated as a martial art and has been practiced as an exercise in China for many centuries.
Tai chi became a sports event in the 1990 XI Asian Games. Tai chi has recently gained popularity in the United States and other Western countries as a general exercise technique, especially for older adults. Today, there are classes, videotapes, and books available on tai chi.
What is the evidence?
Researchers have focused on studying the benefits of relaxation and exercise that result from practicing tai chi. Clinical trials found that tai chi improves posture, balance, flexibility, muscle mass and tone, stamina, and strength in older adults and may help prevent falls and fractures.
One randomised clinical trial found that tai chi lead to a sense of improvement in overall well being in older adults and increased motivation to continue exercising. As an exercise, the benefits have also been noted for older individuals with chronic diseases such as arthritis, osteoporosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and peripheral artery disease. Research has found that tai chi can reduce stress and provide the same cardiovascular benefits as moderate exercise, such as reduced heart rate and blood pressure. There is no scientific evidence that tai chi cures cancer or any other disease, however, it may be useful as a complementary therapy to conventional treatment.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
Tai chi is considered to be a relatively safe, moderate physical activity. As with any form of exercise, it is important to be aware of physical limitations. People with cancer and chronic conditions such as arthritis and heart disease should consult with their physician before undergoing any type of therapy that involves manipulation of joints and muscles.
Channer KS, Barrow D, Barrow R, Osborne M, Ives G. Changes in hemodynamic parameters following Tai Chi Chuan and aerobic exercise in patients recovering from acute myocardial infarction. Post grad Med J. 1996;72:349-351.
Complementary and Alternative Methods. Tai Chi. American Cancer Society Web site. Available at: http://www.cancer.org. Accessed January 24, 2000.
Kutner NG, Barnhart H, Wolf SL, McNeely E, Xu T. Self-report benefits of Tai Chi practice by older adults. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 1997;52:242-246.
Lan C, Lai JS, Wong MK, Yu ML. Cardio respiratory function, flexibility, and body composition among geriatric Tai Chi Chuan practitioners. Arch Phy Med Rehabil. 1996;77:612-616.
Province MA, Hadley EC, Hornbrook MC, et al. The effects of exercise on falls in elderly patients. A preplanned meta-analysis of the FICSIT trials. Frailty and injuries: cooperative studies of intervention techniques. JAMA. 1995;273:1341-1347.
Ross MC, Presswalla JL. The therapeutic effects of Tai Chi for the elderly. J Gerontol Nurs. 1998;24:45-47.
Schaller KJ. Tai Chi Chih: an exercise option for older adults. J Gerontol Nurs. 1996;22:12-17.
Wolf SL, Barnhart HX, Kutner NG, McNeely E, Coogler C, Xu T. Reducing frailty and falls in older persons: an investigation of Tai Chi and computerized balance training. Atlanta FICSIT Group. Frailty and Injuries: Cooperative Studies of Intervention Techniques. J Am Geriatr Soc. 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. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1996;44:498-506.
Note: This information was reprinted from the American Cancer Society's Guide to Complementary and Alternative Methods. Copyright(c)2000, American Cancer Society. This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions, is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor who is familiar with your medical needs.
Extracted from WholeHealthMD.com
Tai chi can be used as a preventive health measure, as a way to maintain good health, or to help with a specific ailment. While tai chi cannot cure disease, it is often recommended as a complementary therapy to conventional treatment. Specifically, tai chi can be used to help:
- · Arthritis. By strengthening the muscles surrounding an arthritic joint and improving flexibility, tai chi increases range of motion without causing pain. Although tai chi cannot treat bone and cartilage damage caused by arthritis, it can lessen the severity and pain of the disease when started early enough.
- · Balance. Research shows that practicing tai chi improves balance in older people and thus reduces the risk of falling--a major cause of death and disability in the elderly.
- · Circulation problems. Tai chi may enable the heart to pump more blood with each beat, thereby improving circulation.
- · High blood pressure. A recent study done at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions revealed that tai chi lowered blood pressure almost as much as moderate-intensity aerobic exercise in older adults who had been sedentary.
- · Multiple sclerosis. Preliminary studies suggest that tai chi helps people with MS to increase their physical functioning as well as their mental well-being.
- · Stress. Although the evidence is limited, some studies have shown that tai chi is as effective as meditation and walking for reducing the amount of stress hormones in the body.
Increasing Research in T’ai Chi
There is a whole range of possible benefits, many being documented by western medical studies.
- · According to a review done my the Harvard Health Letter - July, 1997, tai chi... reduces some stress hormones, reduces risk of falling (the leading cause of death by injury in older folks), and improves balance.
- · The Mayo Health Letter - February, 1998 - "In recent years, a gentle form of ancient Chinese martial arts, called tai chi, has gained attention as a method for improving balance... reduced their risk (of falling) by about 40%."
- · The BC Medical journal reports - (May, 1997) - All manner of illnesses have been researched, mostly in China, but also in North America and Europe. Benefits have been claimed for joint disorder, heart disease, hypertension, substance abuse disorders, and stress related illnesses, to name just a few."
- · Other studies conclude that tai chi may delay the decline of cardio respiratory function in older individuals (Lai et al. in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society - 1995), and appeared to be a part of rehabilitation and a safe alternative exercise for people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis (Kirstens et al. in American Journal of Physical Medical Rehabilitation, 1991)
- · a 1992 Australian study of 96 practitioners found that tai chi had the same effects on heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones as brisk walking.
- · An Atlanta study of 200 people in their 70's found that 15 weeks of tai chi training cut their risk of falling nearly in half, and reduced their blood pressure as well.
- · According to Robert Whipple, an expert on balance and gait at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, "The human frame is phenomenally unstable. We stand on a narrow foundation... Tai chi has come up with the best possible biomechanical scenarios for keeping a person stable - to maximize your base by widening your stance, and to keep your head and torso as vertical as possible."
- · According to "Health After 50" (John Hopkins Medical Letter, July,1999), on "Nipping Anger in the Bud..."
Practice a relaxation technique. The most popular are deep breathing, yoga and tai chi (a Chinese martial art involving a series of slow, graceful movements). These techniques decrease blood pressure, breathing rate, heart rate and muscle tension."
- · Another John Hopkins publication (1999). "Deep breathing may improve fitness levels in people with chronic heart failure. Yoga-derived breathing training (as practiced in tai chi) may increase oxygen levels and ease breathing difficulties."
- · Consumer Report, Feb. 2000. "A routine that combines moderate exercise with meditation techniques, such as a concentration on breathing, may give a two for one reward for stress relief. Tai Chi and yoga are gentle, slow exercises that promote balance, flexibility, stretching and mental calm."
What Can Tai Chi Do For You?
© Copyrights Dr Paul Lam. All rights reserved, no part of this article may be reproduced in any forms or by any means, without permission in writing.
In a nutshell, tai chi can keep you healthy and happy. It's remarkably effective for relaxation, health and fitness. Besides that, it's fun.
Scientific studies have shown that tai chi works magic on health, improving conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, respiratory diseases, and other chronic diseases. In addition, it improves balance, prevents falls, helps posture, and builds up immunity to disease. And if that's not all, tai chi improves mental illness, depression, and stress.
Here's to Your Health
Medical and fitness authorities stress that to be effective for health, exercise should contain three components: cardio-vascular fitness or stamina, muscular strength, and flexibility.
Cardio-vascular fitness means better heart-lung capacity. A good supply of blood and oxygen is essential for maintaining your health and for healing any disease.
In 1996, a study* was done involving 126 post-heart attack patients. They were randomly assigned to participate in either a tai chi class, an aerobic exercise class, or a non-exercise support group. The result: The patients from the tai chi group came out with better cardiovascular fitness and lower blood pressure than patients from the other two groups. To top it off, 80 percent of the people in the tai chi group kept up the practice of tai chi while the support group retained only10 percent of its original membership.
By strengthening our muscles, we keep our joints stable and protected. Of course, we need our muscles to move and when we move, the muscles pump fluid and blood throughout the body, improving the functions not only of the organs and joints but of the entire body.
Many well-known sports heroes suffer from osteoarthritis resulting from injuries. Yet, they are able to perform at their peak level because their strong muscles protect their joints. After they retire from active sports, however, and their training lapses, their muscles weaken. Arthritis sets in or flares up. Perhaps we can conclude that had they taken up tai chi upon retirement, they would have stayed in shape and enjoyed a healthier, happier retirement.
Flexibility improves our range of motion, making us more functional. Being flexible keeps our joints, muscles-our entire body-healthy and allows us to be more active. Take Jim, for example, a 56-year-old retired fireman. Because of an on-the-job injury, Jim couldn't lift his arms any higher than his shoulders. Otherwise healthy, he experienced ongoing frustration. He couldn't reach up in cupboards; he couldn't paint his house; he couldn't even reach a book on a shelf above his head.
Jim had given up hope of ever returning to normal. Then, simply to get exercise, he took up tai chi. Within six months, normal flexibility had returned to his shoulder joints. His life changed. He could reach!
Let's Get It Straight
In addition to these three main components of healthy exercise, tai chi also improves posture, an important component of health. Developing correct posture will result in less wear and tear of the joint muscles. When your posture is upright, the lung space is larger. Try taking a deep breath and straightening your chest. You'll notice that there's more space in the chest. Now try to hunch and see how the space in your chest diminishes. As you can see, the body works better in an upright posture.
Shirley suffered from lower back pain and sciatica problems for some time before she started doing tai chi. Tai chi really helped her. "I think part of the reason I got better was that tai chi strengthened my back muscles and made me conscious of keeping good posture throughout the day," she said. "I don't slouch any more. It has really made a difference."
Forget the Wobbles
As you might expect, good posture promotes better balance, thus preventing falls and the resulting injuries.
Shirley goes on to say, "Tai chi has also strengthened my ankles. I was twisting and spraining them once or twice a year. Now, between my stronger ankles and better posture, I enjoy having better balance, and as I get older, I'll be less likely to fall."
It's All in Your Head
The mind is the most important aspect of health It's a universally accepted fact that the mind controls the body. Surely you've heard of people overcoming disabilities because of their positive attitudes and strong minds. And tai chi, as one of the most powerful mind-body exercises, teaches the student to be aware of the intrinsic energy from which he or she can perceive greater self-control and empowerment.
Almost everyone who practices tai chi recognizes its powerful effect on relaxation and concentration. Take Joanne, for example. About 10 years ago, she was clipped by a van running a red light. She suffered seven pinched nerves between her skull and her coccyx. Having to frequently travel for business didn't help. For years she lived in pain.
Finally, a chiropractor suggested she try tai chi. "A six-week introductory course was enough to get me hooked," said Joanne. "I found that even in that short time, what we were doing was enough to help me start to relax, and that meant my back was finally getting a chance to heal."
You don't have to have sustained an injury to benefit from tai chi-produced relaxation. Tai chi simply offers a tool to help you cope with busy, modern-day life by appreciating the tranquillity and the nature around you.
Going hand in hand with relaxation is the alleviation of stress. As a high-energy businessperson, Joanne has truly benefited from her eight years of tai chi. "Physically, I can handle stress a lot better than I used to. I'm now aware much earlier when I'm responding to stress and can react appropriately. That means I don't end up with tight shoulders and headaches.
"Mentally, I find that overall I handle people and stressful situations differently. I'm more inclined to sit back, listen, and evaluate a situation than I used to be," she continued. "I make much more use of energy (see sidebar) and try to be sensitive to other people's energy to assess their state of mind and body. That's tremendously helpful in dealing with difficult people and situations."
In this context, the term "spirit" refers to simply feeling good rather than "spirit" in the sense of religious or occult. For instance, "Hey, today I'm in good spirits. Or "Today I'm happy." It's usually not easy to control your mood or your spirit with your conscious mind. If it were, depression wouldn't be so common, nor would it be so hard for doctors to treat. The spirit and mood is largely controlled by the subconscious mind, which has an immense power to control us. For instance, you know you're depressed, and although you dislike the condition, you can't seem to get out of your "funk."
Tai chi can help. The ancient Chinese were not totally clear in describing the unconscious mind, but they were aware of its immense power. Tai chi was created incorporating this component. In fact, it's so powerful at uplifting one's spirit that many religious groups mistake tai chi as a "spiritual" practice in a religious sense and forbid their believers to practice it.
Enhancing the qi-vital life energy (qi)-during tai chi practice is an essential part of uplifting the spirit. It's an effective method of connecting with the unconscious mind to uplift your mental attitude. Once you get your body relaxed and calm, and your mind receptive, your qi will begin to circulate. And that will start your spirits soaring.