Tune In to Tai Chi
It took centuries for the gentle, flowing form of exercise called tai chi to cross the ocean from China. Now, tai chi has achieved solid footing on Western shores. It is gaining popularity across America.
Tai chi involves a series of slow, turning movements that are held as poses for a second or several seconds. You bend your knees slightly, relax your body, align your hips, and move very slowly into the poses. How deeply you bend your knees and how long you hold a pose depends on your ability and age.
"Tai chi is a good form of exercise and relaxation for the young and the not-so-young," says David K. Edelberg, M.D., a geriatrics medicine specialist in Chicago. "It can improve strength, balance, flexibility, posture, definitely helps to reduce stress, and studies show that tai chi can reduce blood pressure."
Older adults learn tai chi to improve their balance and reduce their risk of falling.
In a study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (JAGS), researchers looked at 110 healthy older adults. They used tai chi for six months to retain strength they had gained in a three-month light weight-training program. The group improved their balance by 25 to 50 percent and increased their strength by an average of 17 percent.
More than just strength
Tai chi offers an aerobic benefit, too.
Deborah Rohm Young, Ph.D., is an epidemiologist in Baltimore. She studied 62 overweight people older than 60 who had high blood pressure and who performed tai chi four to five times a week for 30 to 45 minutes. After three months, their blood pressure had dropped as though they had been doing moderate aerobic exercise. The study appeared in a 1999 JAGS report.
Tai chi helps reduce stress by making you concentrate on the exercise instead of on whatever may be causing your stress. The slowness of the movements allows you the time to carefully consider them.
That's part of tai chi's attraction at any age.
"Tai chi can help an older person become stronger and more stable so they are able to rise from a seated position more easily and have better balance," says D. Diana Yin, M.D., a Philadelphia doctor. "And it can help a younger person become stronger, improve balance, and help them deal with stress more easily and develop a sense of well-being."
Take some lessons
The best way to learn tai chi is through a class taught at a local school, college, or YMCA.
"You'll know it's a good thing in one evening," Dr. Edelberg says, and it won't be long before you can practice basic movements at home.
"Books and videotapes about tai chi are not the place to start," he warns. "These would be fine—once you've taken a course and the instructor has had a chance to teach you the basics, make sure you're moving correctly, and that you won't injure yourself."
Check with your health care provider before signing up to find out if a tai chi class would be good for you.
One of the good things about tai chi is that you can learn and practice the art according to your own abilities.
"Tai chi can be practiced on many different levels, and no one should push you past your own ability," says Dr. Edelberg. "There shouldn't be any strain."