Exercise is the second pillar in the five pillars of health in Chinese medicine. The fact that it ranks second out of five (diet, exercise, bodywork, herbal medicine and acupuncture) underscores the importance of continued movement for continued function. The old saying “if you don’t used it, you lose it” applies not only to mind, but body, too.
In Chinese medicine, the preferred forms of exercise are slow, sustained efforts that are gentle on the joints. Tai chi, a softer form of martial arts, is a broad term for a specific series of exercises that is often described as moving meditation. The slow, gentle movements make it an appropriate form of exercise for just about anyone, especially for seniors.
There have been many scientific studies about the efficacy of tai chi for various conditions; here are just a few highlights:
• A study published in 2012 in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded “Tai chi training appears to reduce balance impairments in patients with mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease, with additional benefits of improved functional capacity and reduced falls. (Funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.)” (1)
• A group of 256 previously inactive adults, ages 70 to 92, were assigned to either a stretching routine or tai chi. After six months of exercise, the tai chi group had 38 falls verses 73 in the stretching group, with only 7 percent leading to injury verses 18 percent in the stretching group.
According to the study published in 2005, “the risk for multiple falls in the tai chi group was 55 percent lower than that of the stretching control group. …A three-times-per-week, 6-month tai chi program is effective in decreasing the number of falls, the risk for falling and the fear of falling, and it improves functional balance and physical performance in physically inactive persons, aged 70 years or older.” (2)
• In a study published in 2014, patients with multiple sclerosis had measurable improvements in balance, coordination, life satisfaction and mood compared to the control group of treatment as usual after six months of tai chi. While fatigue worsened in the control group during that time, the tai chi group had a fairly stable fatigue level. Their fatigue did not improve, but it did not worsen like the control group. (3)
• A 2004 study of patients with stable congestive heart failure found improvements in quality of life, distance walked, decreased serum B-type natriuretic peptide levels and a possible improvement in peak oxygen uptake with the addition of a tai chi exercise program to standard care. (4)
• A 2009 study evaluated short form tai chi for the following criteria: “Dynamic standing balance evaluated by the center of gravity (COG) excursion during self-initiated body leaning in 4 directions, standing equilibrium evaluated in sensory challenged conditions and functional mobility assessed by Timed-up-and-go score.” The results showed that tai chi improved everything, including vestibular integration, but not the timed-up-and-go score. (5)
• A 2008 study of 15 asthmatic children found that tai chi can improve pulmonary function in the short term, and it deserved longer, follow-up studies. (6)
• Female senior cancer survivors who were taught tai chi verses a control group who received health education had significantly lower systolic blood pressure and cortisol (stress) levels. (7)
The jury is still out on some alleged benefits
Can tai chi affect blood sugar? There are conflicting studies about that. A 2009 study states that 31 test subjects who completed a tai chi exercise program had improvements in fasting glucose, quality of life and performed more self care activities than the control group. (8)
Another study reports the improvements on insulin resistance and HbA(1c) were related to losing fat, not the specific tai chi exercise, but suggests a more intense form of tai chi that burns more calories might be effective for blood sugar control. (9)
An overall look at Pub Med articles will reveal conflicting studies on cardiovascular effects, too, but most studies trend in the direction that tai chi improves balance as well as reduces risk factors for chronic disease.
How do I get started?
Personal instruction is always the best method to learn a new form of exercise, especially if you anticipate needing adjustments for your current ability level. Check with your local gym or community calendar for classes. There are plenty of DVDs and YouTube videos for home practice, too.
Check in with your health care team before you get started, and get ready to bring balance back to body, mind and spirit.