Have you ever seen a group of people practicing the ancient art of Tai Chi? The first time I was exposed to it, I remember thinking that it looked like a combination of slow motion martial arts and a fairly solid form of dance. It struck me as beautiful, but very exotic. A kind of secret ritual that I could not understand.
Fortunately the world a smaller place in many ways. The wisdom of distant learning can now easily spread without any artificial boundaries and regularly enter the lives of people of all ages and cultures. This certainly applies to Tai Chi.
What it is and what it does
Tai Chi is a mind-body exercise that focuses on slow and deliberate movements, instead of aerobic or resistance type exercise (such as most western forms of physicality). In this practice, follow the postures and movements that an instructor gives as an example. Each new movement flows into the next. It is a continuous set of actions that progress in a gentle way.
There is no competition or degree of success or failure of Tai Chi. You just do your best to follow along and movements again by your teacher to perform. The aim is to attempt to replicate any movement with a good technique. Because of this, it really is not important that you are particularly strong or flexible to participate in this exercise.
Both traditional and contemporary sources indicate that Tai Chi can help reduce stress, improve mental concentration, promote flexibility and good posture. But regular users of the profession often report and have other health benefits. This observation has led to the scientific examination of this ancient art. In the blog today, I go three recent studies investigating the potential of Tai Chi is an example in improving the overall health and quality of life studies.
Study # 1 – Tai Chi and cardiovascular health (link)
53 seniors with high cholesterol recently participated in a study to determine whether Tai Chi could improve heart health. About half of the group participated in a year Tai Chi training. The other half continued to receive their typical medical care.
At the beginning and end of the study all participants were tested for their aerobic capacity (the ability to exercise) and several markers associated with heart health to determine. The group learned and practiced Tai Chi showed significant changes in every area of health that was tested. In particular, here’s what researchers found:
- An improvement in oxygen consumption / aerobic capacity, that is to say. allowing more physical activity without “breath” / “out of breath”.
- Drop in blood pressure, C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation), LDL and total cholesterol, insulin and trigylcerides were found in the Tai Chi group. All changes are highly desirable in terms of reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
- The usual care group (no Tai Chi) showed a deteriorated condition of oxygen consumption / aerobic capacity and no significant changes in their cardiovascular health markers.
Study # 2 – Tai Chi and Hygiene (link)
Many people suffer from an inability to sleep properly and consistently. This is evidenced by the number of ads on TV and in magazines that advertise over-the-counter and prescription sleeping pills. According to a recent study, Tai Chi may offer a safer and healthier alternative to these drugs. A study in 112 subjects with chronic sleep problems provides evidence.
Half the group was taught Tai Chi in the course of 16 weeks. Thereafter, the progress followed for an additional nine weeks. The other half of the group was given health advice on the proper “sleep hygiene.”
The Tai Chi group showed a marked improvement in many measures of sleep, including: a) overall quality of sleep, b) habitual sleep efficiency, c) sleep duration, and d) less sleep disturbance.
The authors of the study concluded that, “Tai Chi can be a useful nonpharmacologic approach to improve sleep quality in elderly patients with moderate complaints are investigated and, therefore, the ability to possibly improve sleep complaints for syndromal insomnia develops it.”
Study # 3 – Tai Chi and overall health (link)
The latter study used a new, more fundamental form of Tai Chi called STEP (Simplified Tai Chi Exercise Program). It was specially designed for seniors who may need extra attention at the beginning of each exercise regime.
In this study, 41 elderly men completed a 6 month course of STEP. She practiced this form of Tai Chi three times a week in sessions of 50 minutes. The test was given prior to and after the treatment period. Here is what the test revealed:
- There was a significant reduction in blood pressure at the end of the process.
- Improved physical strength, as measured by an increase in “hand grip strength”.
- An improvement in lower body flexibility is noted.
In short, the researchers recommend that, “STEP be incorporated as a floor activity in long term care facilities to promote physical health of older people.”
I think that Tai Chi is a valuable practice for several reasons. Historical and contemporary evidence clearly show that it can directly affect physical health. But more than that, it helps to align and focus the mind on promoting the health of the body. Our minds can and should be a major player in our health maintenance and promotion. Tai Chi can also lead to a sense of community because it is rarely practiced in isolation. Sharing an interesting and productive activity with others will probably spawn other life enhancing experiences. In my opinion, all these indications point to a holistic therapy that real value.