Stay Young with Tai Chi

19 September, 2012

Sept. 5, 2006 -- Georgina Duggan just knew she'd wind up with arthritis in her spine. "My mother and one of my brothers had back pain from arthritis, so when it started to bother me, I figured it was something I'd have to live with," says the 60-year-old retiree in Mississauga, Ontario. But unlike her family, she isn't suffering anymore. Thanks to an unusual kind of remedy, she's off all her painkillers and feels better than she has in years.

Initially, Duggan went to a chiropractor several times a week for relief. "It helped some, but I got tired of having to go so often." Her physician suggested the ancient art of tai chi. Says Duggan: "He thought the combination of slow movements, meditation, and breathing would help strengthen my spine and increase my flexibility. I thought, Why not?"

After all, the Chinese have been maintaining their health with tai chi for centuries. And today, more than 200,000 Americans take tai chi classes in health clubs--a number that has doubled in the past 4 years, says Rosemary Lavery, a spokesperson for the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association.

Part of tai chi's appeal is that it doesn't really feel like exercise. "It offers cardiovascular benefits similar to brisk walking or low-impact aerobics, but it's much easier on the body," says Ruth Taylor-Piliae, Phd, RN, a tai chi researcher and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine. "It's good for people who might not be capable of strenuous activity." The stances require you to shift your weight slowly from one foot to the other--and you have to maintain control throughout the moves. "This keeps your mind focused, improves balance, and strengthens your body," Taylor-Piliae says.

Indeed, tai chi offers stellar health benefits. For instance, a recent review of 47 studies published in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggested that tai chi can lower blood pressure; increase flexibility, strength, and balance; and decrease stress, anxiety, and depression. Find out what tai chi might do for you from people who are already practicing.

"My blood pressure dropped."

--Linda Bowers, 57, former administrative assistant, Kansas City, MO

When layoffs left Linda Bowers without health insurance 3 years ago, she made the difficult decision to go off her blood pressure medication. Instead, Bowers got serious about daily tai chi to maintain a healthier blood pressure. At her annual checkup--which she paid for out-of-pocket--she was pleasantly surprised to see her BP remain at a steady 134/82.

Low-intensity exercise can work wonders on blood pressure. Researchers at the Stanford Prevention Research Center recently had 39 sedentary seniors do 60 minutes of tai chi three times a week for 12 weeks. On average, the group lowered their resting systolic blood pressure (the larger number) by 13% to a healthier reading of 131 mm/Hg and decreased their resting diastolic BP by 10% to 77 mm/Hg--results similar to those from medication.

Granted, any aerobic exercise would have helped, "but studies indicate that the mental component of tai chi may offer an edge," says Taylor-Piliae, the lead researcher on the study. "Our theory is that the level of focus that tai chi requires triggers a relaxation response. That, in turn, helps reduce the volume of blood going to the heart, making the heart more efficient and thus lowering blood pressure."

"My stress plummeted."

--Sue Gurland, 62, acupuncturist, Boca Raton, FL

"When I get stressed, all the tension goes to my head and neck," says Sue Gurland. "Tai chi relieves my tension. I feel clearheaded and in a much lighter mood." Gurland, who has been practicing for 30 years, says the discipline has changed her outlook on life, too. Research suggests that her results are common.

Studies show the complex series of movements in tai chi reduce the body's level of cortisol, a stress hormone. In another Stanford study of 39 seniors, those who practiced an hour of tai chi 3 days a week for 12 weeks boosted their overall sense of well-being. By the end of the study, participants reported improvement in mood of about 12%--and a 13% decrease in stress.

"I don't get sick as much."

--Diane Rapaport, 67, writer and publisher, Burns, OR

"I used to have bronchitis three or four times a year," remembers Diane Rapaport. "It was awful." Since she started tai chi 6 years ago, however, she hasn't had so much as a sniffle. Experts believe tai chi decreases the release of catecholamine, a neurotransmitter that has been shown to dampen the immune system. A 2003 UCLA study found that a three-times-a-week routine enhanced T cell function by 45% after 4 months. (T cells attack virus-infected cells.)

Though the research looked specifically at the virus that causes shingles, "we believe tai chi would improve resistance to other viruses as well," says Michael Irwin, MD, lead author of the study and a professor of psychiatry at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA.

"Tai chi improved my balance."

--Bob Erler, 68, retired librarian, Bronx, NY

Six years ago, Bob Erler was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a rare condition that reduces sensation in limbs, fingers, and toes--and caused Erler to frequently fall. Practicing tai chi about five times a week, however, has given him remarkable results: "I used to fall about twice a month. Last year, I fell just twice altogether," Erler says. "I've always liked to walk and keep active, but I became fearful after my diagnosis.

Today, I'm confident and more trusting of my body." Says Rhayun Song, PhD, an assistant professor of nursing at Daewon Science College in South Korea: "To prevent falls, you need balance and muscle strength, especially in the lower body." Tai chi seems to improve both. In Song's recent study of 59 seniors, the researcher found that those who did 35 minutes of tai chi three times a week for 12 weeks were only half as likely to fall as those who didn't practice the discipline.

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