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Physician Fitness: Tai Chi in Motion


Watch almost any film set in the country of China and at some point the camera will pan past a group of citizens practicing the graceful exercise of Tai Chi. This ancient martial arts practice may look slow, but make no mistake, it's exercise.

Editor’s Note: This article is the second in an occasional series by Nickole Kerner Bobley examining the myriad sports and activities physicians enjoy in their spare time. Each article looks at the origin and history of the sport and its health benefits. This article looks at the ancient Chinese practice Tai Chi. Click here to read the first article in the series, on rowing.

Tai Chi: What Is It?

Watch almost any film set in the country of China and at some point the camera will pan past a group of citizens practicing the graceful exercise of Tai Chi. This ancient martial arts practice looks much more like performance art than actual exercise. One of its nicknames is “shadow boxing” as its callisthenic movements resemble play fighting and dancing. However, make no mistake, Tai Chi is exercise.

Tai Chi is appealing because it's inexpensive and requires no special equipment. You can do Tai Chi anywhere, indoors or outside. And you can do Tai Chi alone or in a group class. Think of Tai Chi as part exercise class and part meditation class since there is a huge emphasis on breathing as you produce its signature body movements.

There are many different styles of Tai Chi, but all share the same slow, relaxed, and elegant movements — each beat flowing into the next. Many of the movements employed are named after the actions of animals like “embrace tiger,” or odes to nature like “return to mountain. “

Why It’s Good For You

It’s a stress buster and unlike other more vigorous types of exercises where your energy exertion is often fragmented and stunted, Tai Chi’s motions are airy and circular. Muscles remain relaxed, body tissues are not overstretched, and most notably, fragile joints are not strained.

Tai Chi improves overall fitness, flexibility, and muscular strength. Fitness is important for the overall functioning of the heart, lungs, and muscles. Flexibility exercises enable people to move easier, and facilitate circulation of body fluid and blood, which enhance healing. Tai Chi works to improve muscular strength by for supporting and protecting joints during the fluid movements.

In addition to these components, Tai Chi emphasizes the importance of weight transference, which helps balance, prevents falls and improves posture.

Why Doctors Like It

Tai Chi has an impressive safety record and is a good exercise fit for people young or old, toned or out of shape, and those aging and/or saddled with arthritis. In addition to flexibility and muscular strength even aerobic activity can be achieved when Tai Chi’s movements are repeated at a faster pace.

Even without the assistance of weights or resistance bands, Tai Chi can help build muscle strength in the lower and upper extremities as well as the core muscles of the back and abdomen. In a study published in Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine, Stanford University researchers reported benefits of Tai Chi in 39 women and men, average age 66, with below average fitness and at least one cardiovascular risk factor. After taking 36 Tai Chi classes in 12 weeks, they showed improvement in both lower body strength (measured by the number of times they could rise from a chair in 30 seconds) and upper body strength (measured by their ability to do arm curls).

In a Japanese study using the same strength measures, 113 older adults were assigned to different 12-week exercise programs, including Tai Chi, brisk walking, and resistance training. People who did Tai Chi improved more than 30% in lower-body strength and 25% in arm strength — almost as much as those who participated in resistance training, and more than those assigned to brisk walking.

Harvard Health Publications reports that Tai Chi in combination with standard medical treatment appears to be helpful in the treating of the following conditions: arthritis, low bone density, breast cancer, heart disease, heart failure, hypertension, Parkinson’s disease, sleep problems and stroke.

How It Started

Tai Chi’s history is shrouded in mystery so there are many theories about how it all began. One popular idea is that the Taoist sage, Chang San Feng, witnessed a deadly fight between a snake and a crane. The crane attacked, stabbing and jabbing at the snake. Somehow, the snake managed to evade. The snake fought back with whip-like attacks of its own. But, the crane deflected these attacks by fiercely spreading its wings. Inspired by this scene, Chang San Feng went on to create the soft, internal martial art of Tai Chi. He included moves inspired directly from the crane and the snake. His new fighting style was very different from the hard, external Shaolin Temple gung fu, emphasizing relaxed movements.

Typical Tai Chi Class

Most classes contain three segments. First there is a warm-up where the Tai Chi instructor leads you in various fluid exercises to help you to loosen up your muscles and joints while helping you concentrate on your breathing. Next you repeat a series of movements in a specific order called forms. Finally, you can chose to sit, stand, or even lie down for the Qigong (or chi kung) portion of the class (whatever works best for your body that day). This is where you spend a few minutes relaxing the mind and summoning your body’s internal energy force.

Should you choose to try or revisit Tai Chi as an exercise, you will get both a mind and body workout — an exercise one-stop shopping experience.

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