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Move smoothly with tai chi: this ancient exercise can improve your balance, and it may help your sore, arthritic joints.

It might seem unusual that you could gain so much from such a gentle exercise, but tai chi has amassed an impressive list of health benefits, based on clinical research.

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Long known for improving balance and flexibility, the smooth moves of this ancient martial art also may help reduce blood pressure and blood sugar levels, boost immunity to shingles, and ease stress, some studies suggest.

It also may be just what the doctor ordered for arthritis patients. An analysis of seven randomized controlled trials, published June 15 in Arthritis Care & Research, found that tai chi may have a positive effect on pain and disability in people with arthritis. "I recommend that anybody try it at least one time, because the benefits are endless," says Heather Nettle, MA, an exercise physiologist in Cleveland Clinic's Department of Sports Health & Orthopaedic Rehabilitation.

WHAT TAI CHI CAN DO

Combining balance and flexibility exercises, meditation and breathing techniques, tai chi features fluid movements that gently work muscles and help to focus concentration.

According to Chinese medicine, tai chi works by improving the flow of energy known as "chi" in the body Although the idea of chi has yet to be proven scientifically, many health experts recognize the benefits of tai chi, especially for older adults. With age, you tend to lose muscle strength and mobility due to decreased range of motion. Also, the communication between your brain and muscles declines, and you become more susceptible to falls. Tai chi has been shown to improve agility and reduce the risk and fear of falling.

Studies suggest that tai chi may lessen osteoarthritis symptoms and improve flexibility, and the Arthritis Foundation recommends tai chi for osteoarthritis patients. If you have osteoarthritis, you might tend to baby your aching joints or not move them. In doing so, you can make things worse by losing strength and flexibility in the muscles around the joint. Tai chi can combat this "vicious cycle," Nettle says. "With tai chi, you're going through a full pain-free range of motion and challenging the joint as much as you possibly can while maintaining comfortable movement," she says. "It's smooth and low-impact, so there are no short, jerking movements that potentially may cause discomfort."

DOING TAI CHI

Although the slow-paced nature of tai chi makes it suitable for most older adults, check with your doctor before you try it, especially if you take medications or have disorders that affect balance. "It's always a good idea to know what you should and should not be doing," Nettle says.

Tai chi is somewhat complicated and features dozens of movements, so Nettle recommends learning from a qualified instructor. Most senior centers and many gyms offer tai chi classes. Additionally, make sure you choose the style of tai chi--such as Sun, Yang, Wu, Hao and Chen--most suitable for you. While the Sun, Yang and Wu styles are appropriate for most people, the Hao style is more challenging, and the Chen style includes combat techniques better reserved for younger people. Modified versions of tai chi performed in a swimming pool or while sitting on a chair or stool are available for people with severe lower-extremity arthritis or disabilities.

"As with anything, it's best to learn from the experts so they can correct your posture and your technique to the point where you gain maximal benefits," Nettle says.

If you decide to learn tai chi on your own, choose a video that breaks down movements into basic levels where you can practice first. And, take precautions (see What You Can Do) so that you can move not only smoothly, but safely.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Follow these tips if you do tai chi at home:

* Before you start, test your balance by standing on one foot or walking heel to toe. If your balance is deficient, you may have to work up to tai chi.

* Warm up for 5-10 minutes by walking around the room, and walk around slowly for a few minutes after tai chi to cool down.

* Wear nonrestrictive clothing (sweatpants or shorts, and T-shirts) and shoes that don't stick to the floor but also have good traction to prevent slipping. Many people do tai chi barefoot or in skid-proof slippers.

* Let a friend, neighbor or family member know that you're doing tai chi and for how long you'll be doing it, and tell them you'll call when you're finished.

* Keep a phone nearby.

* Clear your exercise area of any debris that might cause you to fall. Move any furniture that might impede your movement or present an injury risk if you fall.
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Title Annotation:Exercise
Publication:Men's Health Advisor
Date:Dec 1, 2009
Words:765
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