The health benefits of tai chi

by Margo White / 31 January, 2013
Stress reduction and better balance and breathing are just some of the benefits that come from practising tai chi.
Tai chi - the health benefits of tai chi
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ACC stopped funding tai chi classes for people over 65 last year, claiming that although tai chi prevented falls, the programme wasn’t cost-effective. This confounded tai chi supporters, given the popularity and success of the programme. Still, they noted, at least ACC had helped train about 1000 instructors in “tai chi for health”, a modified form of tai chi aimed at older people, and many of them still offer classes around the country.

Tai chi is a low-impact, low-risk, slow-motion exercise that connects one movement to another – colourfully named movements such as “white crane spreads it wings” and “repulse the monkey”. The movements are circular, your muscles are relaxed rather than tense, and you don’t fully extend your joints. Tai chi is said to help you to think about things – such as where your foot is in space before you put any weight on it.

“Your mind and body work together a bit more,” says Blair Brocklehurst, who started learning tai chi through the ACC programme two years ago at 76. He now practises it at his Hawke’s Bay home each day, and is using a DVD to extend his practice. He rates tai chi highly for both the physical and mental challenges. “You learn to think as you move. It’s a bit like driving the car; if your mind wanders, it’s a dangerous thing. But also when you’re just walking around – when you’re older, you have to be careful.”

Traditional Chinese medicine emphasises pathways of energy, or chi, and tai chi is said to promote the flow of energy through them. This is perhaps best thought of as a matter of interpretation. “When instructors begin to talk about ‘feeling the flow of life forces emanating from the cosmos coming down through my head and into the earth through my feet’, my sceptic’s antennae are alerted,” says Brocklehurst. “But you can choose to ignore this non-scientific stuff and enjoy the flow of our own body energy through the flowing movements.”

Although tai chi may now be thought of as a form of exercise for the elderly, there are several branches, some of which are far more suited to the young and agile. “Tai chi for health” is based on the gentle Sun style; Chen is more vigorous and involves a lot of stamping and jumping; Yang involves more bending and high kicking; and Wu draws more heavily on martial arts.

All types of tai chi are frequently described as “meditation in motion” or even “medication in motion”, and numerous studies have suggested their myriad health benefits. However, a comprehensive study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2011 looked at 35 systematic reviews of the effects of tai chi on a number of conditions, and found the studies were of variable quality and the results often contradictory.

Evidence that it improves inflammatory disease, cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease and Type 2 diabetes was less than convincing, but there were enough good studies to support the claim that it improves balance and prevents falls in the elderly, reduces stress and lifts the spirits. And as the authors noted, studying the benefits of tai chi in a way that accounts for all the other factors that can affect the results is extremely difficult.

Hazel Thompson, chair of the Tai Chi for Health Community New Zealand, is certain it is an effective therapy for a much broader range of conditions. (She acts as an agent for Paul Lam, the Australian tai chi expert who designed the “tai chi for health” and who has produced such DVDs as Tai Chi for Diabetes and Tai Chi for Rheumatoid Arthritis.) Tai chi might not cure rheumatoid arthritis, for instance, but it can help people live with it.

“If you’re working hard on your tai chi, you can’t worry about anything else, and that in itself is a form of stress release. It gives people tremendous relief and that carries over to other things, like better posture, better breathing, being able to cope better with the challenges that the condition presents.” Besides, “it’s enjoyable. Adherence is very high compared with other forms of exercise. I think mainly because you don’t go home feeling achy. You go home feeling better.”

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