Could Tai Chi offer the same benefits as more vigorous exercise?
We all know that exercise is beneficial for our health, but many of us don’t really enjoy working up a sweat, while others simply can’t. However, recent evidence suggests there may be a surprising solution: tai chi. Practised for centuries, its slow and graceful movements are reported to be good for both body and mind. But could doing something so gentle really be as effective as a bout of more vigorous exercise?
We teamed up with Dr Sarah Aldred )Reader in Exercise Biochemistry), Dr Jet Veldhuijzen van Zanten (Lecturer in Biological Psychology) and Nor Fadila Kasim (Excersise Physiology) from the University of Birmingham.
They took a group of volunteers aged between 65 and 75, none of whom did regular exercise. Half of them were enrolled in a Zumba class for 12 weeks, while the other half did tai chi for 12 weeks.
At the beginning, middle and end of the 12 weeks, Jet, Sarah and Nor recorded the volunteers’ blood pressure and measured the flexibility of their blood vessels using ultrasound. The more flexible your blood vessels, the healthier they are.
They also measured the levels of antioxidants and other chemical markers of stress and inflammation in the volunteers’ blood. Although stress and inflammation may sound bad, they’re actually a healthy response to exercise and lie behind many of its benefits.
As might be expected, our Zumba group were all fitter after 12 weeks. Their blood vessels were more elastic and their blood pressure had dropped. Their blood results improved in line with people undertaking an exercise regime.
More surprisingly, the results from the tai chi group also showed similar benefits to the more rigorous Zumba group, with improvements in blood biomarkers, blood pressure and vessel flexibility.
The answer as to why tai chi might have similar benefits may rest in the fact that tai chi might not be as gentle as it seems. Previous studies undertaken by Sarah and Jet show that people who practise tai chi have a similar rise in heart rate to those doing moderate intensity exercise.
ESSENTIAL FUNDAMENTALS OF TAIJI BOXING
1. Forcelessly press up your head top.
2. Your gaze watches attentively.
3. Contain your chest and pluck up your back.
4. Sink your shoulders and hang your elbows.
5. Settle your wrists and extend your fingers.
6. Your body should be balanced upright.
7. Tuck in your tailbone.
8. Loosen your waist and hips.
9. Your knees should seem to be relaxed but not relaxed.
10. The soles of your feet are to be flush against the ground [except when it is specifically only the tip of the foot or the heel touching down or of course during kicks].
11. Distinguish clearly between empty and full.
12. Upper body and lower coordinate with each other, your whole body a single unit. (“If one part moves, every part moves, and if one part is still, every part is still.”)
13. Inside and outside merge with each other, your breathing natural. (When you need to exhale, exhale, and when you need to inhale, inhale.)
14. Use intention, not exertion.
15. Energy goes everywhere in your body, branching off above and below (sticking to your spine [when going upward] and sinking to your elixir field [when going downward]).
16. Intention and energy are linked together.
17. Posture after posture should flow smoothly into the next, no awkwardness or feeling of things getting jammed up, your whole body comfortable.
18. The movements should be uniform (neither speeding up nor slowing down), and should be continuous without interruption. (Even if the posture seems to halt externally, the intention and internal power should continue without interruption.)
19. The postures should neither go too far nor not far enough. Seek for them to balance.
20. When applying techniques, let them be concealed rather than revealed.
21. Within movement, seek stillness (meaning calmness of mind, free of thoughts or worries). Within stillness, seek movement (meaning the energy moving internally).
22. With lightness there is sensitivity, with sensitivity there is movement, and with movement, there is adaptation.
APPENDIX SECTION from Taiji Compiled: The Boxing, Saber, Sword, Pole, and Sparring
by Chen Yanlin
[published June, 1943]
[Translation by Paul Brennan, March 2013]
Benefits of Tai Chi – some research findings.
Whilst Tai Chi is, performed slowly (generally) it addresses the key mechanisms of fitness: muscle strength, flexibility, and balance. Performing Tai Chi also has the same aerobic impact as brisk walking. Research has been undertaken on several areas and here is just a small sample.
Muscle strength. In a 2006 study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, Stanford University researchers reported benefits of Tai Chi in 39 women and men, average age 66, with below-average fitness and at least one cardiovascular risk factor. After taking 36 Tai Chi classes in 12 weeks, they showed improvement in both lower-body strength (measured by the number of times they could rise from a chair in 30 seconds) and upper-body strength (measured by their ability to do arm curls).
In a Japanese study using the same strength measures, 113 older adults were assigned to different 12-week exercise programs, including Tai Chi, brisk walking, and resistance training. People who did Tai Chi improved more than 30% in lower-body strength and 25% in arm strength — almost as much as those who participated in resistance training, and more than those assigned to brisk walking.
Internist Dr. Gloria Yeh, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School states “Although you aren’t working with weights or resistance bands, the unsupported arm exercise involved in Tai Chi strengthens your upper body,” Also, “Tai Chi strengthens both the lower and upper extremities and also the core muscles of the back and abdomen.”
Flexibility. Women in the 2006 Stanford study significantly boosted upper- and lower-body flexibility as well as strength.
Balance. Tai Chi improves balance and, according to some studies, reduces falls. Proprioception, the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space, declines with age. Tai Chi helps train this sense, which is a function of sensory neurons in the inner ear and stretch receptors in the muscles and ligaments. Tai Chi also improves muscle strength and flexibility, which makes it easier to recover from a stumble. Fear of falling can make you more likely to fall; some studies have found that Tai Chi training helps reduce that fear.
Cardiovascular Benefit. Research has shown that the extremely gentle low impact T'ai Chi exercise can provide the same cardiovascular benefit as moderate impact aerobic exercise. The Harvard Women's Health Watch reported, "Studies support Tai Chi [use] for heart-attack and cardiac-bypass patients, to improve cardio-respiratory function and reduce blood pressure."
29 studies met inclusion criteria, including nine randomized controlled trials, 14 nonrandomized studies, and six observational trials. The study subjects included patients with coronary heart disease, heart failure, CVD, and CVDRF (hypertension, dyslipdemia, impaired glucose metabolism). Tai Chi interventions ranged from 8 weeks to 3 years, and the sample size ranged from 5 to 207. Most studies reported improvement with Tai Chi intervention, such as reduction in blood pressure and increase in exercise capacity. In addition, no adverse effects were reported. The authors concluded that Tai Chi might be a beneficial adjunctive therapy for patients with CVD and CVDRF. - Medscape Today, from WebMD, 2010
Tai Chi for medical conditions
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 spondylosis, 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 Centre and Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre.
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.
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 had 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.
Tai Chi makes your brain bigger and improves memory
Tai Chi makes your brain bigger and can improve memory and thinking - possibly delaying the onset of Alzheimer's disease, claim scientists.
A new study has revealed how elderly people practising Tai Chi just three times a week can boost brain volume and improve memory and thinking. As the exercise increases mental activity, scientists believe it may be possible to delay the onset of incurable Alzheimer's in pensioners.
Dementia and the gradual cognitive deterioration that precedes it are associated with increasing shrinkage of the brain, as nerve cells and their connections are gradually lost. Although scientists know brain volume can be increased in people who participate in aerobic exercise, this is the first study to show a less physical form of working out, like Tai Chi, can have the same results. Researchers conducted an eight month controlled trial on Chinese seniors, comparing those who practiced Tai Chi three times a week to a group with no intervention.
Participants also had lively discussions three times a week over the same period, with results showing a similar increase in brain volume and improvements on memory and thinking as those exercising.
Findings also revealed the group who did not participate in Tai Chi showed brain shrinkage over the eight months - consistent with what generally has been observed for elderly people in their 60s and 70s.
The research suggests forms of exercise like Tai Chi that include an important mental health exercise component, are associated with increased production of brain growth factors like aerobic exercise. Dr James Mortimer, of the University of South Florida, said, "If this is shown, then it would provide strong support to the concept of 'use it or lose it' and encourage seniors to stay actively involved both intellectually and physically.
"The ability to reverse this trend with physical exercise and increased mental activity implies that it may be possible to delay the onset of dementia in older persons through interventions that have many physical and mental health benefits.”Epidemiologic studies have shown repeatedly those individuals who engage in exercise that is more physical or are more socially active have a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease.
"The current findings suggest that this may be a result of growth and preservation of critical regions of the brain affected by this illness."
The study, by University of South Florida and Fudan University in Shanghai China, was published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 2012.
What happens in a Tai Chi class?
The class begins with all the students working as a group doing various warm up and focused stretching exercises, working on body requirements, and Tai Ji principles, Taiji stances and basic movements etc.,. Students then practise the Yang style form which, is a specific sequence of ‘moves’ that flow from one posture to the next posture according to their underlying principles. Students work at their own pace either singly or in small groups based on individual skill levels, the teacher will give individual instruction and hands-on adjustments where necessary.
Taiji form taught
Natural Tai Chi Devon teaches the Yang style form as taught by my Yang style teacher, Master Wang Zhi Xiang. Master Wang’s Yang style can be traced back directly to Yang Cheng Futhrough his teachers, first Master Dong Bing and then Master Wang Zhuang Hong who were both students of Dong Yin Jie a student of Yang Cheng Fu. Master Wang also studied with top Wu style Master Wang Hao Da.
Health benefits of Taiji
Much research has been done on specific areas of health to show the benefits of Taiji practice. You can find a link to some research studies here. As physical exercise, regular practice of Taiji strengthens the legs, improves balance, posture and flexibility in the joints. It helps regulates the breath and the flow of your internal energy, (Qi), through your whole body. Taiji practice aids the release and relaxation of long-held bodily tensions and stress. Through focusing our awareness and breath on the lower abdomen (dantian) we become centred and grounded, thus calming the mind which helps us further in letting go of tension.
Health problems and/or disabilities
Taiji can be practiced by anyone regardless of age. The movements and postures of the Taiji form are adapted to each students’ individual capacity and condition. Please inform the teacher before starting a class of any medical/physical issues
What to wear
Loose comfortable clothing and supportive shoes e.g. trainers, etc
Tai chi helps Parkinson’s patients with balance and fall prevention
Thursday, May 10, 2012
Exercise is important for a healthy lifestyle but it is also a key part of therapy, rehabilitation and disease management. For Parkinson’s disease, exercise routines are often recommended to help maintain stability and the coordinated movements necessary for everyday living. An NIH-funded study, reported in the February 9, 2012 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine,* evaluated three different forms of exercise – resistance training, stretching, and tai chi – and found that tai chi led to the greatest overall improvements in balance and stability for patients with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease. Clinical trial participants assigned to the tai chi exercise group practice slow fluid arm movements in class. Photo credit: Courtesy of Fuzhong Li., Ph.D.
Clinical trial participants assigned to the tai chi exercise group practice slow fluid arm movements in class. Photo credit: Courtesy of Fuzhong Li., Ph.D.
Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder that is caused by the loss of brain cells which control coordinated and purposeful motions. This cell loss results in tremor, rigidity, slowed movement (known as bradykinesia) and impaired balance (postural instability). While some symptoms, such as tremor, at least benefit from drug therapy initially, the medications currently available to treat Parkinson’s are not as effective in restoring balance. This is a special concern for Parkinson’s patients because postural instability frequently leads to falls.
Several studies have demonstrated that resistance training, for instance with ankle weights or using weight-and-pulley machines, has positive effects on balance and gait. As a result, doctors often suggest exercise or prescribe physical therapy to address problems with instability.
Fuzhong Li, Ph.D., research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, was part of a team of researchers who, in 2007, published a pilot study showing that tai chi was a safe exercise for individuals with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease. “We had been using tai chi for balance training in healthy older adults, “ Dr. Li commented, “and older adults and patients with Parkinson’s disease share some difficulties with falls.”
Tai chi is a balance-based exercise that originated in China as a martial art. While there are many different styles, all are characterized by slow, relaxed and flowing movements. In both the pilot study and the recent New England Journal of Medicine study, patients performed a tai chi routine designed to challenge patients’ stability and address the balance and stability-related symptoms of Parkinson’s. The routine included slow, intentional, controlled movements that maximized the swing time of arm and leg motions, and repeatedly incorporated gradual shifts of body weight from one side to another, varying the width of their base of support by standing with feet together or further apart.
With support from the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), Dr. Li and colleagues conducted a larger clinical trial to compare tai chi to resistance training and stretching. The study assigned a total of 195 patients with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease to one of three exercise groups: tai chi, resistance training, or stretching. Patients attended class twice a week for 24 weeks. The investigators assessed balance and movement control by testing how far patients could lean and shift their center of gravity without losing balance, and how directly the patients could reach out to a target, with a minimum of extraneous movement.
After six months, the patients in the tai chi group showed the greatest amount of improvement in balance and stability. Furthermore, patients in the tai chi and resistance training groups had a significantly fewer falls over the six month period compared to participants in the stretching group.
“There is a learning curve involved,” Dr. Li noted, adding that improvement is seen after four to five months of continued practice twice a week, and this trend is similar to what he had noted in his studies of older people.
Dr. Li described tai chi as similar to resistance training, the more commonly recommended physical therapy, in that it requires repetitive movement. Tai chi, however, not only involves shifting a person’s weight and center of gravity, but it is also practiced at a dramatically slow speed and greatly emphasizes intentional control of movement.
“In tai chi we emphasize very slow and intentional movement,” Dr. Li commented. “That imposed a lot of challenge, especially to those in the tai chi group who were used to fast movement.”
Dr. Li also noted that tai chi is very safe and can be performed without equipment and in limited space.
Beth-Anne Sieber, Ph.D., a program officer at NINDS, said that falls are a dangerous side effect of Parkinson’s disease and commented on the significance of Dr. Li’s work. “The key observation in Dr. Li’s study is that a specifically designed sequence of tai chi movements improves postural stability and prevents falls for an extended period of time in persons with Parkinson’s disease. In addition, tai chi sequences can be tailored to improve balance in a spectrum of patients with mild to moderate symptoms.” Dr. Sieber also noted that this study is indicative of a growing interest in examining how physical activity may improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Further research will provide additional information on ways in which physical activity can improve disease symptoms and quality of life for people with Parkinson’s disease.
- By Nicole J. Garbarini, Ph.D.
For more information about Parkinson’s disease, visit: www.ninds.nih.gov/PD.
*Li, F. et al. “Tai chi and postural stability in patients with Parkinson's disease.” New England Journal of Medicine. February 9, 2012. Volume 366(6), pages 511-9.