Tai Chi is a relatively new form of exercise in the Western world but it has been used to treat chronic pain by the Chinese for thousands of years. Recently, researchers have studied the effectiveness of Tai Chi in people who suffered chronic pain from arthritis.
The exercises in Tai Chi are gentle and fluid. They involve a balance between mind and body that is inherently easy on the joints. There is no running or jumping or any movement in Tai Chi that puts added stress on the joints.
While Tai Chi can easily be seen as a practice that won’t make the pain of arthritis worse, researchers wondered whether or not the practice of Tai Chi would actually improve the pain scores of patients with arthritis. Other studies on Tai Chi showed that it benefitted people who gained an overall decreased level of tension, a better satisfaction regarding their health and an improvement in physical health.
Dealing With Arthritis
Arthritis and other musculoskeletal pain can cause significant debilitation in those who suffer from it and it puts a physical and emotional burden on the arthritis sufferers, their loved ones and on the community at large.
While there are medications for arthritis, they are not without side effects and some people just don’t tolerate taking arthritis medication. For those people and for people who only get partial relief from taking pills, Tai Chi is a safe and effective form of exercise that has been shown to decrease pain from musculoskeletal diseases.
Tai Chi: How It Works
People who undergo Tai Chi lessons and practice it regularly usually do so on their feet. The feet, legs arms and trunk move from pose to pose in a fluid motion, matching breath with motion so that mind and body work together to strengthen muscles, improve balance, and relieve pain.
It is a practice that is relatively free of side effects and can be done in the privacy of one’s home, outdoors or in groups. The exercises are distinctly different from the western practices of stretching and lifting small weights. No special equipment is required and participants only need to wear comfortable clothing.
One study (Amanda Hall et al, Arthritis Care & Research, June 2009) was recently done using participants who suffered from chronic pain and disability due to musculoskeletal pain, such as arthritis.
It looked at the ability of Tai Chi to decrease chronic pain and expand on their quality of life and ability to partake in activities of daily living. The research study looked at several other randomized and controlled studies involving the use of Tai Chi in chronic pain. The studies together confirmed that Tai Chi is able to improve the level of pain and disability in arthritic patients.
Other Benefits Of Tai Chi
Added benefits to using Tai Chi to treat chronic pain is that it is an inexpensive sport that can be done at any time and that is considered enjoyable by many people who practice it. When it is practiced in groups, a bonding, and camaraderie adds to the benefits of this practice. When people are in a community of people all practicing the same exercise, there is an increase in sense of community and wellbeing that also affects the perception of pain.
Tai Chi also provides a wealth of other benefits including, lowering stress, depression, and anxiety, all of which are either as a result of, or contributing factors to chronic pain conditions or both.
It should also be noted that Tai Chi helps people cope better with stress, which is known to exasperate pain, so that it makes less of an impact in their daily lives. The stress response in the body, or fight or flight causes physiological changes such as elevated heart rate, anxiety, and nervous tension that can make pain worse and so alleviating chronic stress in those who have some type of pain condition is that much more important.
How It Works
What hasn’t been done is a placebo-controlled study of tai chi; only other practices of exercise and stretching have been done to compare Tai Chi. It is difficult, then, to tease apart exactly what makes Tai Chi so superior to other gentle forms of exercise. Researchers only know that it seems to relieve pain from chronic musculoskeletal disorders such as arthritis better than other forms of exercise and Eastern culture has known this for thousands of years.
Tai chi is a wonderful form of exercise that has been practiced for thousands of years in China and has been enthusiastically welcomed by the millions of people who practice it in the United States. Western medicine also recognizes Tai Chi as an effective way of improving posture and back pain, as well as other types of pain whether related to a specific condition or random.
Tai chi originated as a form of martial arts that trained warriors to be more aware in combat but it has changed over time to be an excellent form of healing art. Tai chi can be practiced alone or in large groups, as it is often practiced that way in the parks of China.
It involves blending the breath with slow and deliberate movements that stretch and strengthen all the muscles of the body, including the back and neck. During the transitions between the movements of Tai chi, the breath acts in synchronicity, increasing feelings of wellbeing, and allowing for a meditative state that calms the mind and relaxed the muscles.
Tai chi is unlike yoga in that it involves a great deal more motion and it is unlike other aerobic exercises in that it its very low impact, and doesn’t involve a lot of pressure on the joints, tendons, and ligaments. It also incorporates mindfulness into the practice, which makes it exponentially more effective than traditional exercise.
The Three Parts Of Tai Chi
There are three major aspects of Tai chi that you should be aware of. They work together to make the process truly a healing art. They include:
• Focused breathing: The breathing matches the rhythmic movements so that you are more relaxed. Breathing narrows the mind and frees it from extraneous thoughts so that you can do the movements better. Deep breathing translates to better oxygenation of the blood that supplies the brain, muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
• Graceful movements: Tai chi is comprised of specific forms or postures that are performed in a slow fluid motion with an upright body. Because it increases the flexibility of the spine and neck, it improves posture and relieves back pain. The movements resemble a slow ballet done by everyday people in comfortable clothing.
• Meditation: People who engage in Tai chi go into a meditative state of mind, which further reduces the stress on the body and mind. The perception of pain is lessened and the individual is calmer after doing the movements while in deep meditation.
Posture And Spine Health
Since Tai chi is done standing and is focused on balance and gracefulness, you can develop a better posture with a straighter and stronger spine. Anyone can benefit from better posture since many people simply ignore this important element of their health. The movements of Tai chi are focused around the spine, using the extremities for balance and precision of movement.
The back muscles are strengthened so that you don’t have so much pressure put on the bones of the spine; they are instead better supported by the back muscles. Traditional Chinese Medicine believes that the spine is key in healing, and when it is straight, it allows our life qi (energy) to flow freely making us well and dis-ease free.
Perception Of Pain
The perception of pain is lessened while practicing Tai chi and this includes the perception of back and neck pain. Tai chi acts on the pain centers of the brain through meditation so areas of the back or neck involved in arthritic changes, for example, are less painful because the brain learns not to perceive pain in the same way as before practicing Tai chi.
When you walk after practicing Tai chi for a period of time, you walk with a less “slouched” appearance; your spine is straighter and you put less pressure on the joints of the spine. These benefits last long after you have stopped doing Tai chi.
Get Started Today!
Because Tai chi is easy on the joints and muscles, it can be practiced by people of all ages. It can not only prevent back pain from occurring in people who start doing it at a young age but it can relieve the pain of existing back problems in people who don’t start Tai chi until they are older.
It is cheap to do and requires no special exercise equipment. Try taking a class in Tai chi to see how it feels or purchase a Tai chi DVD so you can do it in the comfort of your own home.
Tai Chi has, until relatively recently, been a martial arts/meditative practice used primarily by patients who followed traditional Chinese medicine, which is centuries old and which has been shown to help many different ailments. Now, the information that Tai Chi is helpful against pain, including the pain of arthritis, has reached Western medical circles so that doctors we see every day may just as likely recommend Tai Chi as an aspirin for arthritis pain.
Arthritis can affect any part of the body, from the large joints of the knees, elbows, and hips, to the small joints of the hands and feet. Along with pain, there can be stiffness, and crunching sound in the joints, and a lack of coordination of the muscles surrounding the joints. Medications to control these symptoms generally help; however, they often have untoward side effects that make them difficult to use on a chronic basis.
The Practice Of Tai Chi
Tai Chi, which makes use of gentle and slow movements associated with meditation and deep breathing, has also been found to aid in helping the pain and stiffness of arthritis dissipate. In fact, its practice has been shown to decrease the need for medications altogether in some patients who regularly engage in Tai Chi.
Tai Chi is a meditative exercise program that allows you do a series of motions that gradually move from one to the other over a period of 30-60 minutes. There are short forms of Tai Chi, involving only about 20 different motions and long forms of Tai Chi, which can involve a hundred or more different motions.
During Tai Chi, proper posture is emphasized as well as graceful movement using all the muscles and joints of the body. It requires no special equipment, can be done solitary or in groups, and can be done by people of varying physical abilities. Most of the movements can be done by one individual alone, although a few of the movements require a partner.
Tai Chi comes in many different styles, of which the Yang style is the most commonly used style among Westerners. Circular movements are emphasized along with deep concentration on how the movements and breathing go together. In the beginning, it is all about learning the various movements and how they go together. Later, you can learn best how to combine the movements with breathing and meditation for the maximum effect.
Tai Chi And Arthritis
The movements of Tai Chi are very gentle and do not stress the joints at all. There is nothing about Tai Chi that jars the body or overextends the joints, it is very low impact and slow moving, but offers unparalleled results. When practiced, it has been shown to decrease the perception of pain and stiffness in arthritic patients. Many people across the world and in the US practice Tai Chi for various health reasons, including the improvement of arthritis symptoms that in turn boost one’s quality of life and mobility.
It doesn’t take years for the effects of Tai Chi to become apparent.
In fact, most people begin to feel better after just a month or two of studying Tai Chi. It brings about an increase in the flow of joint fluid within the joints so that the joints get the gentle activity needed to feel better. The joints are nourished by the practice of Tai Chi and begin to heel. The joints are more slippery and move more smoothly, making them less painful.
Tai Chi has also been found to strengthen the muscles surrounding the joints so that there is less pressure on the joints themselves. If you have pain in your large joints, such as those in your legs, Tai Chi can also improve balance and flexibility so you move with less risk of falling and have better coordination of your muscles and joints.
It is very important to learn how to do Tai Chi correctly, as it is very intricate and detail oriented, and learning how to do the moves correctly along with applying the breathing and meditation element is critical. Try out a Tai Chi class if you have arthritis and want to experience less pain. Tai Chi can also be taught at home using a Tai Chi DVD.
Tai Chi has aerobic benefits as well as improving your flexibility and balance. Because it does not involve a huge amount of frenetic activity, it has the potential to be one of the aerobic activities of choice in people who are at risk for heart disease or who have already had a heart attack. It is an exercise you can do at any age and whether or not you are already in good physical condition.
The art and exercise of Tai Chi involves going through a series of motion, deep breathing with a meditative approach. You breathe deeply during these exercises, allowing fresh, oxygenated blood to reach and nourish the heart. At the same time, you are focusing your mind on your breathing and on the various motions, which calms the mind and relieves everyday stress—something your heart very badly needs.
Tai Chi is usually done standing up; however, if you are confined to a wheelchair, the activities can be modified to suit your needs. It is also good for people recovering from surgery, including heart surgery.
Benefits Of Tai Chi To Your Heart Include The Following:
• It allows for oxygenated blood to nourish your muscles and your heart
• According to a study conducted by National Taiwan University in 2008, 53 people who were at risk for heart disease engaged in a year of Tai Chi. The results showed that these subjects had improved levels of C-reactive protein, which is linked to cardiovascular disease, cholesterol, insulin, and triglycerides. They also had lower blood pressure that greatly contributes to heart attack. The control group showed no signs of improvement in health.
• It involves no jarring motions so it is good for people recovering from heart surgery.
• It relieves stress—a contributing factor to heart disease and something that can make heart disease worse.
• It can be done even when you are not physically fit or are confined to a wheelchair
• It gradually and gently strengthens the heart through gentle aerobic exercise
In Tai Chi, you do motions with relaxed muscles and with joints that are neither stretched out nor extremely contracted so, if you have arthritis, it is easy on your joints as well.
You don’t need to understand exactly how Tai Chi works nor do you need to understand more than the basics of qi energy and the function of the yin and yang in Tai Chi exercise.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, qi energy is an energy force that moves through your body through “highways” called meridians. Tai Chi allows this flow to occur more easily, affecting all your organs, including your heart. Tai Chi balances the opposite elements of yin and yang so your body is in balance as well, which is always a positive for overall health and wellness.
What Is A Tai Chi Class Like?
During a Tai Chi session, you begin by warming up with gentle exercises, such as rolling and stretching your shoulders and neck, putting you in the mind set to exercise. This is also the time to get in better contact with your breath, and to focus your mind on breathing and exercise.
There are short forms of tai chi, in which you go through a series of 10-12 motions or 24 forms during the entire session. In long forms of Tai Chi lessons, you have hundreds of motions to choose from and you can do as many as you like.
If you are in poor health or recovering from heart surgery, it is best to begin with the short form of the exercise. If you feel that Tai Chi is too challenging, you can practice a related form of exercise called qi dong, which can be done in a standing, sitting or lying position. Of course, you should always check with your doctor before starting Tai Chi or any other form of exercise.
If you have a bad heart or are at risk for heart disease, it is better to learn Tai Chi sooner rather than when you are recovering from heart surgery or a heart attack. That way, you will already know the skill involved in doing Tai Chi before your heart becomes worse. If in doubt, talk to your doctor to see whether you are able to perform tai chi.
Rarely, you might have a serious musculoskeletal condition or have problems with dizziness when standing or trying to balance and your doctor will recommend even milder forms of exercise or suggest that you try the short form of Tai Chi in the beginning.
It doesn’t hurt to first observe a Tai Chi class so you can see whether or not it is a good fit for you before investing the cost and time into doing the class yourself. Speak with the instructor of the class to make sure he or she is experienced in the practice of tai chi, especially in regard to teaching patients with heart conditions. If it seems that Tai Chi will help you, sign up to the class, wear comfortable clothing and be prepared to exercise and get better!
People may be somewhat familiar with the idea of Tai Chi as a slow moving, low-impact, meditative form of exercise. However, they may not be aware that Tai Chi also teaches people how to cultivate their personal energy (chi or qi: pronounced “chee”).
This component of Tai Chi is actually its precursor; Qi Gong (also called Tai Chi Qi Gong). The two are distinct in form and purpose, but appear similar in action.
Tai Chi builds the external body and generates energy through action (yang)–strengthening the musculoskeletal system. Qi Gong cultivates existing energy with breath work and mental focus directing it internally to facilitate organ health and healthy body systems (yin). Tai Chi and Qi Gong are sometimes practiced during the same session.
Tai Chi and Qi Gong consist of a specific series of exercises or forms performed in a specific order. Tai Chi forms tend to be longer and more precise than Qi Gong forms. Several components of the practice need to be performed well to successfully calm the mind when practicing Tai Chi and Qi Gong.
Focus On The Breath
Tai Chi and Qi Gong practitioners employ a deep and expansive breathing style. The abdomen is unrestricted and the breath flows freely in and out of the body through the nostrils. It is steady and smooth not forceful. This breathing style enhances oxygen levels, encourages a quiet mind, and facilitates emotional balance.
Preparation For The Forms
Perform warm-up exercises and Qi Gong exercises to prepare for your Tai Chi practice. For example, the session can begin with the Ball of Energy exercise. The practitioner first rubs their hands together to generate heat then alternately draws the hands apart and back together without touching.
They visualize a ball of energy ebbing and growing between their hands. The exercise ends by drawing the hands completely apart and bringing them to rest by the sides. The warm-up begins the process of creating a state of mental calm and concentration.
Move With Focus And Alignment
In order to properly build, direct, and retain energy, the prescribed application of focus and alignment needs to be followed. Tai Chi and Qi Gong teach specific forms with the purpose of building physical and energetic health. The emphasis on alignment, breath, and which part of the exercise receives your mental focus may change, but the forms and their order do not.
At this point, the practitioner may actually move into meditation. By continually applying the forms, practitioners eventually reach a level where the movements simply flow without them having to actively name and direct each movement.
When this occurs, they enjoy the moving meditation aspects of Tai Chi and Qi Gong as well as the accompanying benefits, a calm mind and general sense of well-being.
Close Your Practice Well
In Tai Chi and Qi Gong, the method used to close the practice is as important as the rest of the practice. The energy cultivated during the practice must be appropriately settled, dispersed, and stored. If not done correctly, the practitioner will experience the opposite of the intended effect of the practice.
A practice needs to end as instructed by a qualified teacher in accordance with the Tai Chi or Qi Gong form being used. The close requires drawing the chi into one or more of the body’s energy centers and refocusing on the present. Completing the practice in this manner allows participants to retain and integrate the calming effects of the practice into their daily activities.
An Activity For All Ages
Tai Chi and Qi Gong may be practiced by people of all ages and fitness levels. It effectively calms the mind while increasing focus and awareness making it beneficial for people seeking improved mental health and stress relief.
Tai Chi and Qi Gong may be learned through a variety of media, books, videos and audio recording, however most sources recommend learning the practice in a class setting or via private instruction first.
All of us get older; this is just a simple fact of life. However, the aging process can differ from one person to the other. The better we take care of our health, and make healthy lifestyle choices the better the aging process will be.
This is a simple fact that is supported by mountains of scientific research. People who focus on prevention early in life can reap the benefits of being more vital, energetic, and healthier as they face their senior years.
Tai Chi is a form of exercise that can be used at any age and at any fitness level. This exercise began as a form of martial art but has found profound popularity in the modern world as a form of meditative movement that has great healing energy, helps to reduce pain, boost brain power, improve mind wellness, posture and balance. It also makes a great adjunct to medications used to treat the elderly depressed patient.
Can it actually slow the aging process along with its long list of health benefits?
A Recent Study On Aging And Tai Chi
A recent study was published in Cell Transplantation, which looked at the benefits of Tai Chi when it comes to the aging process. The study looked at levels of CD34 cells, which are important cells to many of our body’s organs and cellular metabolism. They knew that the numbers of this type of stem cell were important in aging and decided to see whether Tai Chi affected the number of CD34 cells in the body.
The study involved dividing groups of volunteers who were under the age of 25 at the time of the study. The participants were assigned activities such as brisk walking, Tai Chi, or no exercise program whatsoever. Youthful participants were studied because they renew cells better than older people do and the study was designed to last for one full year. These participants were free of any type of chronic disease and took no medications during the study period.
The study revealed that those participants who studied and practiced Tai Chi on a regular basis had a much greater number of rejuvenating CD34 cells than those who were in the other two groups.
With more of these stem cells in the system, it was felt that they could offset the cellular death and decline that goes with the aging process.
Researchers were quick to point out that the number of CD34 cells in the body only partially affects aging and that more studies on aging and Tai Chi need to be carried out before it can be determined that Tai Chi actually slows the aging process.
So far, Tai Chi has been found scientifically to help people who suffer from chronic pain syndromes, fibromyalgia and Parkinson’s disease—which is usually a problem affecting the aged population.
It also helps people improve their balance so they fall less, lessen stress, and reduce blood pressure. Besides the elevation in CD34 cells, things like reduced stress, lessened pain, and blood pressure reduction are known to prolong life and to improve the quality of one’s life.
A Chinese Study
Tai Chi is also known to improve memory in all age groups. A group of Chinese researchers looked at elderly people and their memory performance on memory tests. Those participants who took part in Tai Chi at least three times per week were able to do better on various memory tests after just 8 months of practicing Tai Chi.
The researchers compared scores on memory tests between Tai Chi practitioners and those that did not practice Tai Chi and discovered a significant difference in the brain’s ability to memorize things between the two groups.
Memory problems are another problem affecting the aged population so Tai Chi may be able to help this population have a better quality of life when they practice Tai Chi.
Parkinson’s disease patients, who are for the most part elderly, showed improvements in balance and coordination when they studied Tai Chi and practiced it regularly; they had fewer falls, which could have potentially led to hip and wrist fractures, some of which can lead to an early death.
Tai Chi has a long list of health benefits, and supports and promotes mind, body, and spiritual wellbeing. It can be incorporated into any regular fitness routine that also includes aerobic and strength training workouts to yield a well-rounded and highly diverse training program that can support health, wellness, and better aging.
In various ways, Tai Chi appears to result in a longer life, and a better quality of life than if the individual didn’t practice Tai Chi. Further studies are necessary to see if there are other ways that Tai Chi can extend life and quality of life.
Mindfulness focused activities allow people to decrease stress and anxiety by slowing the pace at which the mind and body function. Modern life often causes people to spend much of their day in a hyper alert state.
We live hectic lives, racing through the day from work, to making dinner to family, we rarely stop to smell the roses so to say, and this along with all the stress involved in this kind of lifestyle takes its toll on our health and general wellness. The stress response becomes commonplace and a chronic state of fight or flight can even begin to affect our joy and happiness.
he mindful awareness achieved in meditation allows a person to disengage from stressful stimuli and stressful thought patterns and therefore benefiting greatly from a calm mind. Tai Chi includes mindful meditation using the breath and movement, which significantly increases the benefits.
The symptoms of stress show a body and mind functioning in overdrive:
Some of these symptoms also correlate with fight or flight response functions, increased heart rate, increased energy for rapid threat response and accelerated breathing pattern.
One of Tai Chi’s foundational components, deep breathing, immediately slows the body and the mind by disengaging the fight or flight response and activating the relaxation response.
Stress Versus The Relaxation Response
Connecting with the breath is one of the first activities performed during a Tai Chi practice. Once a practitioner establishes their stance, they allow the breath to even deepen a slow. They will maintain this style of breathing throughout the practice.
This type of breathing turns on the parasympathetic nervous system by stimulating the Vagus nerve. It has the opposite effect of the sympathetic nervous system on the body.
The sympathetic nervous system activates the “fight or flight” response. The parasympathetic nervous system soothes and calms the body. Practicing deep breathing alters the way the body reacts to stress; fight or flight ceases to be the default response to any stressful stimuli.
When performing Tai Chi, practitioners engage in high levels of concentration. They narrow their perception of sensory inputs to their immediate actions and surroundings. For example, they focus on where their feet meet the ground or the sensations associated with shifting their weight from one foot to the other. As they lift their arms, they may note the way their hands look and the way the muscles of their shoulders and upper back feel as the arms rise.
Practitioners perform each of the poses in the various Tai Chi forms slowly to cultivate and enhance elevated levels of concentration. Although performed slowly, Tai Chi exercises provide many of the same physical benefits as traditional Western exercise.
These benefits include: building strength and flexibility, stress reduction, improved cardiovascular function, improved immune system function, improved sleep and a general sense of well-being.
However, it accomplishes these equivalent results with lower physiological impact.
Tai Chi exercises’ slow and repetitive nature makes it simple to learn. The practice does not require any special equipment. A person only needs a few feet of space in which to move and a firm knowledge of the style and form of Tai Chi to be practiced.
Meditation occurs when concentration becomes effortless. The intellect ceases to name an object, idea, or activity and the practitioner experiences an expansive awareness. Tai Chi offers a moving meditation experience.
It is part of the reason the practice evolved into a variety of styles and forms to be memorized and consistently practiced. Once memorized by the mind as well as the body, muscle memory comes into play, which allows long-term practitioners to find a meditative state. Their attention shifts from the mechanics of the practice to its content–from the how to the what of being in the present moment.
Tai Chi provides an effective and proven approach to physical fitness, mindfulness, and meditation. It does this by combining deep breathing, prescribed and choreographed movements, and meditation.
The practice provides a way to attain physical and mental health as well as a general sense of well-being or in other words a lifting of the spirit. It is suitable for all ages, all fitness levels and in many cases can even be practiced by people with limited capacity for movement.
In recent years, more and more research studies have been undertaken in order to find out the positive effects of Tai Chi on a person’s physical and mental health. Researchers in both the East Asian medical and Western medical circles have come together to provide compelling evidence that Tai Chi has many medical benefits, including the improvement in balance, coordination, posture, medical disorders and even the aging process itself.
Tai Chi is well known to reduce stress, support heart health, and reduce depression and anxiety. Tai Chi also improves brain function and cognition, and Tai Chi practitioners have been shown to increase gray matter in the brain by 40%. It is even used by breast cancer patients to improve their quality of life. Additionally, it seems that it may benefit memory as well.
A Recent Study On Tai Chi And Memory
A recent research study has been undertaken to see how Tai Chi can affect the memory and cognitive powers among an elderly population who practice Tai Chi at least three times per week. Each Tai Chi routine lasts from about 30 minutes to an hour and can be done by people who have just about any fitness level.
The study is based on the premise that, if Tai Chi can improve memory processes, it may be able to slow the progress of or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly. In Alzheimer’s disease, there are increased numbers of plaques in the brain, the presence of neurofibrillary tangles in the brain, and brain shrinkage. If Tai Chi can alter any of these factors, then it might be a promising way to stop the aging process going on inside the human brain.
While Tai Chi is a physical exercise, it is also a mind-body exercise that brings the brain into the practice through deep concentration and meditation. The brain and the body work together to focus on breathing and the carrying out of the fluid, gentle exercises. Besides its benefits on the body as a whole, it improves mental activity and clarity so that it has the potential to maximize memory.
What the study found was that, after several months of practicing Tai Chi, the individuals who practiced this form of exercise were able to increase their overall brain volume and improve their scores on memory tests.
The increase in brain volume could not be explained; however, it is the opposite of what happens in Alzheimer’s disease, where the brain’s neural connections decrease and the brain shrinks. The brain is also known to increase in size when people engage in more strenuous aerobic exercise; however, this study was the first to look at an exercise not considered to be too taxing. Even so, Tai Chi’s moderate aerobic approach seemed to have the same benefit as stronger forms of exercise.
In the above study, which took place over an eight-month period of time, the Chinese researchers studied the difference in brain volume in people who did Tai Chi and in people who had no intervention.
All participants took part in a stimulating discussion three times a week during the study period. Those who participated in stimulating discussion and those who simply practiced Tai Chi were able to increase their brain volume.
Those that didn’t participate in Tai Chi had decreases in brain volume to a degree that is seen in most people who are between 60 and 70 years of age.
Tai Chi And Regular Exercise
Tai Chi tends to be a better form of exercise in older people who have a decreased capacity for intensive aerobic activity mainly because it is a low impact activity. Since Tai Chi was similar to intensive exercise when it came to increasing brain volume, it is likely that this much milder form of exercise can still benefit memory and concentration in people who can’t engage in more intense forms of aerobic activity.
Because the brain is engaged in doing Tai Chi, it releases growth factors in the brain that can stimulate brain growth. If this were the case for Tai Chi as well as other forms of aerobic exercise, it would imply that people should practice Tai Chi from when they are young through their aging years as a way to keep the brain healthy and delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
In addition, people who undergo regular exercise like Tai Chi tend to be more socially engaged, which can also improve memory and cognition at all ages of life.
Tai Chi provides a simple, accessible, and effective way to exercise the body and mind. The series of slow movements, performed with intense focus while breathing deeply calms the sympathetic nervous system, which guides the fight, or flight response. There are several styles of Tai Chi. Most of them incorporate poses, which take their names and movements from animals, vegetation, and other natural phenomena.
Activities, which support the health of the body, can also support mental health via the mind-body connection. Physical exercise provides many benefits. Tai Chi in particular offers a long list of physical and mental benefits. Regarding physical health, this form of exercise builds strength and muscular endurance, improves balance, increases flexibility, offers pain relief, and maintains joint health–allowing practitioners improved range of motion.
The mental health benefits include improved self-esteem and confidence, a more positive outlook and a general sense of well-being. It also allows practitioners to learn how to focus their attention; this ability may help some ease their tendency toward worry or anxiety.
The National Alliance On Mental Health reports that 18.1% of US adults experience some type of anxiety disorder, which includes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and various phobias. People also experience anxiety on a day-to-day basis as the pressure and stressors of life trigger the stress response in the body.
Tai Chi and Stress
A 2010 article published in the American Academy of Family Physicians journal, “Exercise, Yoga, and Meditation for Depressive and Anxiety Disorders,” analyzed several studies on the effects of Tai Chi, and other mind-body therapies, on anxiety and stress.
Analysis of the study outcomes showed Tai Chi improves the symptoms of depression in adults ages 50 to 84. The results also show the improvement may be primarily associated with the social support found by practicing Tai Chi in-group settings. The authors based this conclusion on follow-up observations, which showed declines in the improvements after class participation ended.
Tai Chi and Anxiety
Exercise in general causes improvements in the symptoms of people with anxiety disorder order. They experience a decrease in panic attacks, nervousness, and other symptoms. Tai Chi’s meditative element may lend further support for symptom relief.
The data analysis of the studies covered in the previously mentioned AAFP article indicated that meditation is an effective therapy for people with anxiety disorders.
Why Does It Work?
Tai Chi causes changes in the brain, which build cognitive functions and keep the brain young.
• In general, people experience a loss in grey matter as they age. Grey matter is the conductor of brain activity; it carries the electrical signals of our thoughts to the different sections of the brain. Tai Chi practitioners build grey matter up to 40 percent with extended and consistent practice.
• It increases cortical wall density. Thicker cortical walls are associated with decreased cognitive decline, which supports faster decision making, improved ability to focus and better memory.
• Tai Chi builds neuroplasticity. It helps the brain build new connections based on daily experiences and reorganize current connections. As they learn and perform Tai Chi exercises, practitioners exercise their mental muscles: building attention, memory, and proprioception. This strengthens a person’s ability to manage daily stressors.
• These brain benefits also prevent cyclical negative thoughts. Instead of worrying about past, present or future outcomes, Tai Chi practitioners are better able to move on to the next thought and address stressful situations in a forward thinking fashion.
• Tai Chi is a meditative movement practice that involves slow, fluid movement as one transitions from one form to the next. This type of movement requires a high level of concentration from the mind, which in turn allows a profound calm to take place. This calming of the mind does not stop once a session of Tai Chi is over, with regular practice it becomes a part of the practitioner, which allows them to cope with life’s stress in a more calm and peaceful manner helping to reduce anxiety exponentially.
Tai Chi is especially beneficial for older adults and elderly people who find other forms of physical activity challenging. The slow-motion, low impact and meditative nature of the practice allow them to access multiple benefits without having to set aside time to exercise and an additional period of time to meditate. They experience health gains, stress relief, and decreased anxiety with one activity.
Consistent practice, two to three times per week, is the key to successfully using Tai Chi to combat depression and anxiety. The combined physical and mental benefits of practicing Tai Chi, along with its effectiveness, make it a popular alternative therapy with people of all ages.