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Behind tai chi: research shows that tai chi offers a wide spectrum of benefits.

Practiced for centuries by Chinese monks greeting the rising sun, tai chi has been used for defense, meditation and therapy. Although Chinese medicine has been considered an "alternative" (therefore, unscientific) practice, the martial art Tai Chi Chuan or "The Grand Ultimate Fist," has improved the physical conditions and well-being of many individuals. Tai chi offers relaxation techniques combined with healing aerobic movements.

Recently, there have been numerous medical studies on the applicable uses of tai chi concerning particular conditions and injuries. Through its meditative aspects, tai chi reduces stress, improves balance and coordination, increases flexibility, motion and strength, enhances body awareness, burns calories and assists mental well-being. (1) These benefits were experienced within several weeks of regular tai chi classes.

Cardiovascular Health

According to several studies conducted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tai chi reduces blood pressure, eases hypertension and improves cardiac health. In a 12-week study, 50 percent of the participants were prescribed moderate aerobic exercise (i.e., brisk walking, low-impact exercises), while the remaining participants were taught tai chi. The tai chi group's systolic blood pressure dropped an average of seven millimeters. Although the aerobic group's blood pressure dropped to 8.4 millimeters, the comparison illustrates the value of the low-impact tai chi regimen. The tai chi group lowered their blood pressure considerably without excessive or arduous strain on their bodies. (2) Therefore, tai chi offers similar results to individuals who might not be able to engage in moderate aerobic activity.

The participants cardiovascular health improved drastically due to the meditative qualities of tai chi--lowering blood pressure and easing hypertension through breathing techniques. With heart disease being the number one cause of death in the United States, tai chi could be beneficial. Enhancing body awareness through measured breathing and focus on the body's positions, posture and movements can significantly reduce stress, lower blood pressure and relax muscles.

Balance

According to Robert Whipple, an expert on balance and gait at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, "The human frame is phenomenally unstable." Humans stand on a narrow foundation and constant muscular compensation is necessary to keep jointed segments under control. (3) Looking at the basic structure of tai chi, we can understand why this exercise can improve the narrow and unstable human frame. Tai chi movements are performed in an almost squatting position (weight evenly dispersed through a wide stance of the legs, back straight, slow breathing and movements).

Tai chi positions are ideal for elderly, disabled and injured individuals. The low-impact movements allow weak and injured bodies to slowly rebuild strength, while improving posture and reducing pain. Researchers at Emory University found tai chi greatly reduces joint swelling and tenderness in osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, thereby improving balance, muscle and hand grip strength. Furthermore, a study of 200 people, in their 70s, found that 15 weeks of tai chi training reduced their risk of falling by 50 percent. By lowering the center of gravity, the positions increase leg strength. (4) Some patients demonstrated more improvement when tai chi was transferred to a water exercise, thereby relieving gravity from their bones and joints. (5)

Relax the Back

In addition, research from the University of Southern California revealed that regular tai chi classes reduce lower back pain. This report indicates that in approximately 50 volunteers with daily back pain, between ages 18 and 65, the pain was reduced in half the volunteers. (6) Tai chi positions rely on the individual's back remaining straight at all times, therefore, weak, worn and aching muscles are forced to gain strength. For individuals suffering from "secretary spread" or other types of job-related back pain, tai chi increases flexibility and reduces back pain.

Lift Your Spirits

The mental aspect of tai chi has been studied among college students--a typically depressed, anxious and fatigue age group. Research shows that in a group of 71 students from two universities three (of which control groups were formed), only the tai chi/guided imagery training group was found to have less anxiety and depression. (7) This evidence illustrates the power of the relaxation techniques of tai chi.

While younger individuals may consider tai chi a "granny martial art," this couldn't be further from the truth. Some instructors may slow down the movements to accommodate older students, but tai chi can also be accelerated and used in a defensive manner.

Although many people dismiss this research as being part of current trends in the fitness industry, tai chi was not developed overnight. It has been perfected over centuries and allows instructors and physicians to provide their students and patients with the benefits of tai chi therapy. The research shows that, at times, it may be worth taking an alternative route to achieve well-being.

Tai chi has been documented to:

* Reduce stress.

* Improve balance.

* Increase flexibility, motion and strength.

* Reduce blood pressure.

* Assist mental well-being through meditative forms.

* Burn calories

* Improve coordination.

* Enhance body awareness.

(1.) Chilliot, Rick. "Gotta Try It." Prevention Magazine. Nov. 1998

(2.) Derrick, Rachel Christmas. "Ease Hypertension with Tai Chi." Essence Magazine. Sept. 1998.

(3.) Schneiderman, Linda. "Meditating in Motion with tai chi." Consumer Reports. Feb. 2000.

(4.) Cerrato, Paul. L. "Tai chi: A Martial Art Turns Therapeutic." RN Magazine. Feb. 1999.

(5.) Argo, Carol. "Water Tai Chi." American Fitness. Jul/Aug 1998.

(6.) Li, F., Harmer, P., McAuley, E. "Tai chi Improves Physical Function in Sedentary Older Adults." Geriatrics. July 2000.

(7.) Cai, Sean. "Physical Exercise and Mental Health: a Content Integrated Approach in Coping with College Students' Anxiety and Depression." Physical Educator. Spring 2000.

Hallie D. Winchell lives in Denton, Texas, currently attends the University of North Texas and is a creative writing major.
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Author:Winchell, Hallie D.
Publication:American Fitness
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
Words:944
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