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.