Inner Peace: The Health Benefits of Tai Chi

Inner Peace: The Health Benefits of Tai Chi
by Sarah Kaye Santos
Published December 18, 2016

When it comes to working out, most of our minds go to burpees or running on the treadmill. Gentler exercises often go forgotten, but they shouldn’t. For one thing, you’re a lot more likely to squeeze in a workout if doesn’t leave you drenched or completely aching. Tai chi is one of our favorites. What is tai chi, you ask? It’s a graceful type of martial art that’s calming and also manages to strengthen your body through controlled movements. If you’d like to hear more, check out these benefits of tai chi.

1. It improves mental health


That an exercise involving slow, methodical movements is good for your mind seems to make sense, and there’s research to prove it. According to a 2010 review. practicing tai chi can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. This was true even when subjects incorporated just a small amount into their routines, so a packed schedule shouldn’t deter you. Have a 10-minute window in your day? Give it a shot. A shorter session is probably better for tai chi beginners anyway.

2. It increases strength

Although it isn’t as taxing as other exercises like running or lifting weights, tai chi can help build strength. Specifically, WebMD says you’ll target your core, arms, legs, glutes, and back. If ever there were a full body workout, this is it. Plus, Harvard Health Publications says tai chi can even provide some aerobic conditioning if you manage to move quick enough. Even if if it doesn’t turn into a full-blow cardio workout, the flexibility and strength gains are totally worth it.

3. It helps improve balance

You can add improved balance to the list of tai chi’s benefits. In one study researchers found people with Parkinson’s disease saw greater improvement in balance after practicing tai chi for 24 weeks compared to those who performed resistance training or stretching. Tai chi practitioners also experienced fewer falls.

So what exactly is happening? Harvard Health Publications explains tai chi helps with balance because it improves leg strength, reflexes, and range of motion which are all crucial for keeping you upright. And the better your balance, the less likely you are to fall.

4. It helps improve flexibility


If you do tai chi regularly, Everyday Health says you’ll probably notice your flexibility improve. This makes complete sense, because the exercise involves slow, relaxed movements that incorporate all of the major muscle groups in the body. It’s basically moving stretches.

5. It may help lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol

Concerned about your blood pressure or cholesterol? Genetics and diet make the biggest difference, but Tai chi may help as well. According to one study, the exercise can both reduce blood pressure and improve your lipid profile. You don’t even need to do it for decades to see benefits. The researchers in this study saw the changes after just 12 weeks.

6. It can help improve sleep

If you have trouble sleeping at night, tai chi could be the solution you’ve been looking for. One study found older adults can improve their sleep if they follow a low to moderate intensity tai chi program. Participants who practiced the exercise three times a week for six months reported significantly greater improvements in sleep quality compared to those who practiced another low-impact exercise. In fact, those who practiced tai chi slept, on average, 48 minutes longer each night. That totally beats counting sheep.

7. It can provide arthritis relief

People with arthritis are encouraged to get regular exercise, because it can help relieve painful symptoms. It’s not always that easy, though. Since so many exercises involve high-impact movements, it’s possible to exacerbate aching joints. Luckily, Healthline says tai chi is one of the best ways to get moving. Just be sure to speak with your doctor prior to starting a new exercise program.

Tai Chi Reduces Stress

Teaching Chinese Ways of Easing Stress
Published: Sunday, April 23, 2000

ANYONE who thinks finding the secret to healing or relaxation takes a lot of time and money hasn’t tried to learn to stretch, breathe and focus with Joi Eden and Betty Sun, gurus of the ancient Chinese martial arts of tai chi and chi kung, yoga and meditation.

Ms. Eden can set you straight in 10 seconds. ”Be still. Be silent. And listen,” said Ms. Eden, speaking in the hushed tones of a spiritual counselor. ”If you can do these three things, life can be much better for you.”

Ms. Eden and Ms. Sun are masters, who humbly prefer not to be called masters, of ”being in the moment” and finding inner peace.

To do the moving meditations of tai chi or chi kung, Ms. Sun said, first you have to relax and learn about yourself. ”We don’t teach you how to kick and breathe and punch,” she said. ”We teach you how to center.” Then, using the connection of mind, body and spirit, you can change your life.

Ms. Eden and Ms. Sun, sisters-in-law in their late 40’s, run Stillness in Motion, a school for tai chi chuan, chi kung, yoga, meditation, reiki and other stress-reduction programs, in Hicksville. Recently, they formed a not-for-profit organization, Bamboo Mountain Center, offering programs on wellness and integrative, complementary health care.

”Everything that we teach is about focused awareness,” Ms. Sun said. ”We basically give people the tools to participate in their own healing and participate in relaxed awareness.”

But their schedule seems anything but relaxed. Ms. Sun and Ms. Eden teach the therapeutic forms, give workshops and seminars at the school and run retreats at St. Josephate’s, a monastery in Glen Cove. (A tai chi, chi kung and yoga retreat is scheduled for Friday, Saturday and next Sunday; call 516-938-4244). Ms. Sun also designs ponds and fountains; Ms. Eden is writing books on Eastern and Western philosophies and a mystery novel. Their cadre of more than two dozen instructors — culled mostly from their own classes — teach tai chi and chi kung at more than 30 locations on Long Island, including Echo Park and Levittown Parkway in Hempstead, adult education classes in Hicksville, Mineola, Long Beach, Rockville Centre, Massapequa, Islip and the Great Neck Senior Citizen Center.

In the past two years, two of the women’s seven instructional videotapes, ”Embrace the Moon: Tai Chi Chuan” and ”Bamboo Mountain Chi Kung/Qigong,” won the Golden Classic Telly Awards in Health and Medicine. And this month, ”Embrace the Moon” was the No. 2 fitness video pick on Ms. Eden wrote the script and narrates; Ms. Sun demonstrates. (Jane Fonda she’s not, but buns of steel are not the point.) They have also produced eight audiotapes. (Listening to their meditation techniques while driving is not recommended.)

”What we are doing is shadow boxing a martial art,” said Ms. Sun, as she moved her hands in a slow, dancing tai chi motion, first like the bristle of a brush painting up a wall, then back and forth, arms outstretched, as if she were swimming in the air. Although the movements are calm and fluid, tai chi and chi kung exercises enhance circulation, help the cardiovascular and immune systems and improve muscle tone and balance without strain.

”You are balancing your own energy,” Ms. Sun said. ”You are focusing and you are aware of everything about you. When you are moving as one, you are connecting with everything. It’s such a peaceful state of being. It’s like being at the beach and being at one with the waves. What’s the most interesting is not what’s being seen but what is going on internally. We are massaging our internal organs. It’s simple but it’s not easy. It’s easy but it’s not simple. What we are doing is yin yang, the balance of complementary opposites.”

Ms. Eden, a former executive, and Ms. Sun, who had a mobile dog-grooming business, had long been interested in Eastern philosophies. For years, they studied tai chi with an old Chinese man in Chinatown. Then, during an adult ed astrology class, Ms. Eden casually explained to her teacher that the reason she could have the astrological sign Gemini and remain still and quiet was because of her devotion to tai chi. The astrology teacher asked if Ms. Eden would teach a course in it. Initially, Ms. Eden declined. ”I said no, I have to ask the powers that be, the masters,” she recalled. ”I’m not old, I’m not Chinese, I’m not a man. I can’t.”

After several weeks, she relented. Ms. Sun agreed to help. Ninety-five students turned up for that first class given through the Hicksville adult ed program. In 1988, the women opened Stillness in Motion.

”This was not meant to be a business,” Ms. Eden said. ”This was not meant to be anything at all. None of this was planned.” But the results, their students said, are physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually healing.

Seven years ago, Ron La Feir, a Vietnam veteran and truck driver from Hicksville, was popping two blood pressure pills a day, had asthma and constantly suffered from bronchial infections.

Then Mr. La Feir, now 57, signed up for tai chi lessons. Soon, he no longer needed the blood pressure medication and his breathing difficulties eased.

”Through tai chi and chi kung and the relaxation from meditation, it’s all gone away,” said Mr. La Feir.

Fifty-year-old Gail Cheney of Deer Park, an office manager for a telemarketing company, was looking for a gentler workout when she signed up at Stillness in Motion three years ago. Tai chi changed her life.

”I got a lot more than I bargained for,” recalled Ms. Cheney, an avid racquetball player until bad knees forced her to quit. ” When I do tai chi, it’s a meditation for me. It makes me feel good physically and mentally. Basically the philosophy that you get is relax, relax, relax. It makes a profound difference.”

And for Judy Koch, 62, of Wantagh, taking tai chi was her way of keeping a promise to do something physical after chemotherapy and radiation treatments for breast cancer.

” When I left the first class, I called my husband and said ‘I feel like my old self again,’ ” said Ms. Koch, a former Rockette. After a two-and-a-half-hour meditation workshop with Ms. Eden, Ms. Koch put the sleeping pills away. She hasn’t taken them since. ”I’m in remission,” she said, speaking of her cancer. ”I could not have gotten this far without the medicine, but they gave me back the rest of my life, too.”

Tai Chi For Health

Tai Chi For Health
By Jane E. Brody,
Published: Wednesday, July 16, 1997

KENNETH POWELL of Brooklyn is a complete athlete. He plays tennis, works out in a gym, skis and surfs. But in addition to these vigorous activities, two or three times a day this 37-year-old father of two preschoolers does tai chi, a Chinese exercise that is at once calming and strengthening.

You may have seen the people of China doing tai chi on television during President Richard M. Nixon’s visit in 1972, but by now you have no doubt come across people in your neighborhood going through the slow, graceful, tranquil, dancelike motions of tai chi, a 5,000-year-old form of mental and physical exercise.

Though long touted for the emotional well-being it bestows, recent studies indicate that tai chi can also improve physical health. It helps tone muscles, combat fatigue and improve circulation. And because it is a gentle form of exercise, it is particularly helpful for people who are unable to perform more vigorous activities because of age, illness or physical disabilities. There are different styles of tai chi (some include martial arts) but their effects on health are quite similar.

Why Try Tai Chi?

Robert Parry, in his new well-illustrated book, ”Tai Chi Made Easy” (People’s Medical Society, $16.95), said: ”Tai chi is about generating and feeling energy through movement. It is not just about fitness.” He added that it was ”a special way of looking at life — a path of inspiration and a guide toward relaxation and health.” Regular practitioners say it helps them deal with stress, unleashes their creative energy, counters depression and fosters self-confidence and optimism.

Tai chi is, in one sense, a form of meditation. Unlike transcendental meditation, a focused inner peace is achieved through movement; unlike yoga, the movement is continuous and puts little stress on joints and muscles. Recent studies have established some expected health benefits and revealed some surprising ones. Researchers have shown tai chi to be especially helpful to the elderly, improving their sense of balance and reducing their risk of falls. But as Mr. Powell and millions of others have discovered, tai chi can be good for people of all ages and at all levels of physical prowess.

”Tai chi has given me a knowledge of balance and centeredness that I can apply to every sport I do, even walking,” Mr. Powell said. ”I know how to breathe properly, how to lower my center of gravity, how to use my body efficiently, how to relax, all of which I can apply to my regular life.” Tai chi professionals report that daily practice of tai chi also reduces the chances of injury during other activities because it strengthens leg muscles and promotes coordination, proper posture and a natural flow to one’s movements.

One of the best books on the subject, ”Tai Chi for Health” by Edward Maisel (Holt, Rinehart & Winston), was originally published in 1963 and was republished in an updated version in 1972. It is practical throughout and stripped of mysticism. Describing tai chi’s advantages, Mr. Maisel wrote that it could be done anywhere, at any time, by anyone who could stand and move. It requires no special equipment or clothing, just something loose and comfortable, flat shoes or bare feet and a 4-by-4-foot space. Mr. Maisel wrote that people who became anxious or distracted could ”simply move to a small spot, wherever they may find themselves, and perform their tai chi for its calming effect.”

In a 15-week study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and published in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in May 1996, Dr. Steven L. Wolf, a rehabilitation medicine specialist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, randomly assigned 215 people 70 and older to three groups. One took weekly tai chi lessons and practiced on their own twice daily. Another met to discuss issues important to the elderly and were told to continue their usual exercise. The third got balance-training.

Among those doing tai chi, blood pressure fell and grip strength increased, and the participants’ sense of control over their lives improved. But most important, when followed for up to 17 months after the training period ended, the members of the tai chi group had reduced their risk of falls nearly in half. In another study, by researchers at the University of Connecticut, leg strength increased in people older than 75 who were trained in tai chi. One note of caution: Some tai chi moves involve deep knee bends or squats, which are best avoided by people with arthritic knees or hips.

Learning How

Though tai chi may look simple, as if moves were invented de novo by the practitioner, it is actually a highly programmed series of gentle movements, one flowing into another. It must be learned and practiced regularly (most experts say daily) to be beneficial. It usually takes six months to a year to learn all the moves, though you can learn as few or as many as you choose and do only one or a few moves in a single session.

There are now tai chi teachers all around the country. If attending a class is impractical, books like Mr. Parry’s can help you learn the movements. He presents them with step-by-step descriptions and photos and diagrams, including some basic dos and don’ts: Keep your spine upright and your breathing slow and rhythmic, move from the center of your body, maintain a low center of gravity, never lock elbows or knees, drop your shoulders, maintain space between your arms and your body, maintain a wide stance, keep moving at all times, step forward heel first, keep the forward knee over the toes and imagine your bodily tensions dissolving as you work.

Do your legs get tired standing in a museum or in a long line? That is because most of the time you are standing still on two planted feet, which impedes circulation and holds muscles in a state of tension. As one foot lands in tai chi, the other lifts. Muscles are continuously tensed and relaxed, and fatigue is not likely to limit your endurance. In fact, Mr. Powell says, just the opposite is true. Tai chi, which he sometimes does for two hours at a time, is energizing.

Tai chi can be done alone, in silence or (as some prefer) to soothing music, or it can be done with a partner, as depicted in Mr. Parry’s book. Though tai chi can be practiced anywhere, most people prefer the outdoors, weather permitting, which is the true Chinese way. To find a tai chi instructor, check your Yellow Pages or inquire at local health clubs, Y’s or hospital-based rehabilitation centers. Or if you see someone practicing tai chi in your neighborhood, wait until the workout is finished (no one doing tai chi wants to be interrupted) and ask where that person trained.

Tai Chi is Meditation

Experts Assess the Merits of Meditation in Motion
Published: Tuesday, April 13, 2004

On a languid March evening, Jeff Morris, a lean, muscular man with a calm smile and shaved head, led a class of three men and two women with slow, fluid, continuous movements through the formalized postures of tai chi, the centuries-old Chinese Taoist martial art.

For 75 minutes, the participants focused their attention on controlling the positions of their arms, legs, torsos and spines, guiding them in concert repeatedly through their poses with varying degrees of gracefulness.

Told in 1986 that he had full-blown AIDS and just a year to live, Mr. Morris turned to tai chi, its companion discipline qigong and later a cocktail of antiviral drugs. Now, H.I.V. is virtually undetectable in his blood, and he teaches tai chi at various locations in Miami-Dade County.

Mr. Morris is not alone in attributing healing value to what is often called meditation in motion. But as with acupuncture and other non-Western healing arts, determining just how well this ancient discipline works challenges researchers.

Tai chi first gained adherents in the United States in the late 1960’s. The practice is said to enhance balance, flexibility, gait, posture, digestion, concentration, memory and overall physical and mental well-being. Its proponents say it is especially beneficial for the elderly and for people with chronic medical disorders.

Tai chi’s methods and purpose stand in stark contrast to more active aerobic activities, like running, cycling, swimming or even brisk walking. Eastern exercises like tai chi emphasize internal strength and energy; Western activities traditionally focus on building muscles, said Dr. Chenchen Wang, who studies the medical use of tai chi at the Tufts-New England Medical Center.

Over the past five decades, dozens of clinical studies have suggested that tai chi may benefit people with high blood pressure, heart problems, injuries, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety and depression, among other ailments.

But despite the generally favorable findings on the physiological and psychological value of tai chi, Dr. Wang said, the studies were neither conclusive nor definitive.

Dr. Wang based her conclusions on an analysis of 47 medical studies conducted in China and the United States over the past five decades.

She and two collaborators, Dr. Joseph Lau of the Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston and Dr. Jean-Paul Collet of Jewish General Hospital at McGill University in Montreal, published their findings in the March 8 issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

”The promise of tai chi is great,” Dr. Wang said, ”but given the current state of knowledge, I wouldn’t recommend to my patients to do tai chi over other exercise.”

She added that more and better studies were needed to determine which of the many forms of tai chi were best for which problems, how long a patient needed to follow a program to show improvement and whether tai chi was more effective than other forms of exercise.

Dr. Wang is now preparing to publish the findings of a comprehensive study of the effectiveness of tai chi in helping people with rheumatoid arthritis improve their balance and prevent falls.

It is axiomatic that exercise is essential to good health.

Although recommendations vary somewhat among organizations and for different age groups, the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends for adults a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity — brisk walking, for example — at least five days a week, or a minimum of 20 minutes of vigorous exercise, like running, three or more days a week.

Dr. Deborah Rohm Young, a kinesiologist at the University of Maryland, said the question for the 80 to 85 percent of Americans who do not meet that threshold, for reasons including chronic illness, is which exercise is best — well-known aerobic activities like walking, jogging or cycling or Eastern exercises like yoga, tai chi or even the physically passive qigong, which focuses on meditation and breathing.

In a clinical trial in the late 1990’s, Dr. Young and her colleagues found that moderate-intensity aerobic exercise was slightly better than low-intensity tai chi at lowering blood pressure and noticeably better at improving fitness in a group of 62 sedentary elderly people over 12 weeks.

But the style of tai chi they taught, known as yang — popular because of its slow, continuous movements — performed well enough to lead the researchers to conclude that it might help sedentary older adults who could not engage in more rigorous exercise, or did not want to.

Studies of tai chi are hard to conduct, because tai chi masters differ in their instruction methods and often do not want to change what they do to conform with other teachers, said Dr. Jorge Juncos, a neurologist at the Emory University School of Medicine.

Dr. Juncos is conducting a study comparing the relative effectiveness of tai chi, qigong and traditional huff-and-puff aerobics in helping patients with Parkinson’s disease improve their gait, balance, posture and conditioning.

Exercise may benefit Parkinson’s patients primarily through caloric expenditure; in that case, the form matters less than the intensity, Dr. Juncos said. Alternatively, it may be the emphasis in tai chi on integrating the mind and the body that is beneficial.

To find out, Dr. Juncos made sure that in his study, the tai chi practitioners worked as hard physically as those doing aerobics. Because tai chi emphasizes the meeting of mind and body, some experts believe it is potentially more effective for people with neurological disorders than aerobic activities like walking or pedaling a stationary bicycle.

While performing those activities, people often listen to music, read or talk, Dr. Juncos noted.

Tai chi is thought to engage the brain through concentrated breathing. The theory is that the breathing begins to shift primary neurological functions to other brain regions, correcting to some degree the poor balance or gait that are hallmarks of Parkinson’s.

Tai chi may also help alleviate the thinking and memory problems that affect some people with Parkinson’s, Dr. Juncos said.

Many studies do not continue long enough to measure the full effects of tai chi, which takes time and practice to master, said Dr. Fuzhong Li, a research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute.

In a study that has not yet been published, Dr. Li found that falls were significantly reduced in a group of elderly people during six months of training in tai chi.

A follow-up survey showed that six months after the end of the training, there were still fewer falls among the people who were trained in tai chi than among those who were not.

Seventy percent of the tai chi group had continued practicing after the training period.

Because it can take months to learn proper tai chi movement, Dr. Li has tried to make the exercise easier for people, so they do not quit prematurely.

He developed a simplified version of yang-style tai chi that emphasizes weight shifts, hand-eye coordination, trunk rotation and slow, continuous, even flow through eight forms, or postures.

”We’re not interested in the aerobic aspect of exercise,” Dr. Li said. ”We are interested in physical functioning and balance.”

What makes tai chi valuable, he added, is that the physical movements are combined with meditation, that it is low-impact and can be performed anywhere, and that people, especially those who are older, enjoy the social interactions of the classes.

At the Advanced Sports Medicine Wellness Institute in Miami Beach, without breaking a sweat or driving his pulse rate far above normal, a physically fit visitor with Parkinson’s disease found Mr. Morris’s 75-minute session to be intense and hard.

But it seemed no better mentally, and was certainly less aerobic, than swimming laps.

Tai Chi For Strokes

Tai Chi Shows Promise as a Stroke Therapy
Published: April 6, 2009

Writing in the journal Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair, the researchers reported improvement in volunteers after as little as six weeks of training. The lead author was Stephanie S. Y. Au-Yeung of Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

In earlier research, one of the article’s co-authors, Christina W. Y. Hui-Chan, found that tai chi improved balance among healthy elderly people. For this study, the researchers wanted to see if the same effect would occur among stroke patients.

They took 136 people who had a stroke six months or more earlier and divided them into two groups. Over 12 weeks, one group did general exercise, the other a modified version of tai chi.

The tai chi group met once a week for an hour, and were asked to practice at home about three hours a week.

While the exercise group showed little improvement in balance, the tai chi group made significant gains when they were tested on weight-shifting, reaching and how well they could maintain their stability on a platform that moved like a bus.

The benefit of tai chi, the researchers said, is that once the forms are mastered, they can be done without supervision.

Still, they said, some patients lapsed in their practice after the training was over. They might be more likely to continue, the study said, if tai chi were available at places like community centers.

Tai Chi Helps Elderly Stay on Their Feet

2 Exercises Help Older People Stay on Their Feet
Published: July 26, 2005

Two Chinese exercise techniques — the ancient martial art of tai chi and exercising by walking on cobblestones — may improve the balance of older people and help prevent falls, according to two new studies.

In the tai chi study, published in the July issue of The Journal of Advanced Nursing, 59 men and women with an average age of 78 were divided into two groups, one participating in a 12-week tai chi course, the other maintaining its usual activities without exercise classes.

The tai chi group members did 10 minutes of warm-up followed by 20 minutes of walking while moving the hands and arms. Then they did moderate range-of-motion exercises for the neck, shoulders, trunk, hip, knees and ankles. The classes were held three times a week.

Rhayun Song, the senior author on the study and an assistant professor of nursing at Chungnam National University in Daejeon, South Korea, said that keeping joints and muscles moving was essential for older people, and that ”tai chi can do it without causing pain and stiffness since it’s slow circular movements without external impact.”

Tai chi’s breathing elements, called qi-gong, are also important, Dr. Song said. ”We emphasize breathing exercise during the movements so that individuals maintain aerobic metabolism in their body during exercise,” she added.

Measures of muscle strength showed that the physical fitness of the exercise group improved significantly. Balance, as calculated by how long a person could stand on one foot with her eyes open, also improved by the end of the program.

Thirty-one percent of the people in the tai chi exercise group experienced falls during the period, compared with 50 percent of the non-exercisers, although this difference was not statistically significant.

The other study, a randomized trial that was published online last month and will appear in a future issue of The Journal of the American Geriatrics Association, involved two groups of 54 healthy men and women age 60 and older.

Each group participated in an exercise session consisting of 30 minutes of walking 3 times a week for 16 weeks. One group walked on a flat surface while the other walked on mats that replicated the uneven pattern of cobblestones that are common on walkways in Chinese parks. The intensity of the exercise was carefully tracked to make sure members of the two groups were using the same amount of energy.

Participants in each group improved on several measures of physical health.

But compared with those in the ordinary walking group, the mat walkers had better balance (tested by several different standing and reaching tasks), lower blood pressure and faster times in walking 50 feet at the end of the exercise program. They also did better in a test of how fast they could rise from a chair, walk 10 feet and then sit down.

K. John Fisher, a research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute and a co-author of the article, said that people had to get used to walking on the mats, and that a few participants experienced some discomfort at the beginning of the training.

But few people dropped out, and there were no exercise-related injuries, suggesting that the program is suitable and safe for older adults.

Even though walking on the cobblestone mats proved the more beneficial exercise, Fuzhong Li, the lead author on the study and a senior research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute, said he did not recommend that older people give up ordinary walking in favor of the cobblestone program.

”Regular walking is the most popular physical activity in this country,” Dr. Li said, ”and it has multiple health benefits. Cobblestone mat walking may provide additional physical and physiological benefits.”