Food & Fitness Advisor
Tai Chi, the graceful martial art that has been practiced in China for centuries, is slowly gaining recognition in mainstream America. The exercise, traditionally practiced at dawn and dusk, involves moving through a set sequence of smooth, slow movements called forms. The 60 or so forms mimic the movements of animals, with evocative names like Grasp a Sparrow's Tail and Stork Spreading Its Wings. Proponents have long claimed that the meditative movement of Tai Chi reduces stress, increases strength, and contributes to overall well-being. Now, scientific evidence is starting to prove them right.
Like meditation and massage therapy, it appears that Tai Chi can slow the heart rate, improve digestion, and circulation, and relax the mind and body. Often described as "moving meditation," practitioners say it creates the ideal environment for meditation because it requires intense concentration, deep an uniform breathing, and erect posture. In one Australian study, Tai Chi was found to be as effective as meditation and brisk walking - and more effective than reading- in reducing levels of stress hormones.
Say good-bye to step class?
Perhaps the most intriguing health benefit of Tai Chi focuses on high blood pressure. A small 12-week pilot study , presented at a 1998 American Heart Association conference, suggests that Tai Chi can lower blood pressure almost as well as brisk walking or low impact aerobics.
Thought the experiment was only a pilot study, the results complement research presented at a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, which showed that Tai Chi can be a form of aerobic exercise. Harvey Kurland, M.Sc., a California-based Exercise Physiologist and Tai Chi instructor, discovered that when people performed Tai Chi they expended about the same energy as walking three to four miles per hour. "Tai Chi is aerobic, it's just not high intensity." Says Kurland. "But for the average couch potato, or even a moderate (fitness level) exerciser, Tai Chi is going to do the trick."
Strength, balance, flexibility
The most well established medical benefit of Tai Chi comes from research on strength and balance in older adults. One notable study found that seniors who practice Tai Chi for 15 weeks reduced their risk of falling by 47.5%. In addition, participants gained confidence in their balance, minimizing their fear of falling.
The director of the study, Steven Wolf, Ph.D., a professor at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, says that the findings are relevant to younger women as well. "There are lots of reasons for premenopausal women to try Tai Chi." He says, "but here's one of the most compelling: 40% of women develop osteoporosis after menopause. If you do exercise that's slow and graceful and loads your bones when you're young, you can probably delay the onset of osteoporosis."
In addition to its value in preventing falls and osteoporosis-related fractures, a recent study in the journal Geriatrics suggest that Tai Chi may help people with arthritis by strengthening the muscles around the joints and increasing range of motion and flexibility.