The Benefits of T'ai Chi

By: Julie Hasel

The History of T'ai Chi Medical Studies of T'ai Chi
What is T'ai Chi? T'ai Chi and Cardiorespiratory Functions
T'ai Chi Motions T'ai Chi and Post-stressor Recovery
The Physical Benefits of T'ai Chi T'ai Chi v. Balance, Flexibility, and more!
Physical vs. Mental Benefits of T'ai Chi T'ai Chi and the Reduction of Falls
Specific Benefits of T'ai Chi: Joint Problems Internet Information v. Medical Information
Back Problems Conclusion
Stress Reduction Bibliography
T'ai Chi for the Elderly  

History of T'ai Chi

One of the most relaxing forms of martial arts, T'ai Chi, can help to overcome such problems as arthritis, rheumatism, back problems, lack of balance, high blood pressure, stress, post-traumatic stress, lack of energy, and more.  T'ai Chi is a non violent form of the martial arts whose roots are derived from the Chinese and correlated with Traditional Chinese Medicinal techniques.  There are many forms of T'ai Chi, including T'ai Chi Chuan and T'ai Chi Chih; all of which have been studied for thousands of years to improve the Chinese way of life.  There have been many records of the origin of T'ai Chi reaching as far back as over 3500 years ago.  In addition to a Chinese Martial Art,  T'ai Chi has origins related to Taoism, which revolved around calmness, "tranquillity of mind," and the improvement of health and persona (wysiwg://25/http://www.spiritweb.org/Spirit/tai-chi.html).  Monks employed T'ai Chi as means of be coming more in tune with their bodies and their environment.  Therefore, this martial art helped them to "defend themselves against bandits and warlords through physical health and spiritual growth" (http://www.maui.net/~taichi4u/overview.html).
 

What is T'ai Chi?

 

T'ai Chi is an entire body experience meant to relax its participant and allow one to "effortlessly experience the vital life force, or Chi, in one's body" (http://www.fitnesslink.com/mind/chi.htm).  T'ai Chi is literally translated to mean "Supreme Ultimate," and it teaches one to be more relaxed through a greater connection with one's body and awareness of one's movements and thoughts (http://members.tripod.com/~donalo/introd.htm).  This experience differs from other "hard" martial arts, by its softness and sensitivity to one's body.  Its slow, precise movements strengthen both one's mind and body.  T'ai Chi can help one to become a better person through promoting growth and learning about oneself free from limitations and inhibitions.  The Martial Arts Institute says that this exercise "combines relaxation in motion with precise breathing to stimulate the inner energies of the body, strengthening the immune systems, nervous system, and regulating the metabolic processes (http://www.hsing-i.com/tai_chi/index.html).
 

T'ai Chi Motions

 Tai Chi movements are characteristically short and compact.  The Sun T'ai Chi Research Foundation explains that "stances are upright and natural, with the feet normally being no wider than shoulder width."  These movements also incorporate "unique 'open-close' hand movements" that help "to concentrate chi in the Dan tien (the area of abdomen just below the navel), the front of the torso, and specially in the palms of the hands" (http://www.wle.com/stcrf.htm).  Most forms of T'ai Chi actually look like a classical dance, soft and flowing, but precise and strong.  It must be taught structurally, step by step, as the movements become one with the body.  The required stances are natural and the movements are short and compact, therefore the exercise should remain unstressful.  T'ai Chi instructor, Vincent Li says that the actions obey the definition of the theory of T'ai Chi -- "The unbending breaks while the yielding survives" (wysiwg://25//http://www.spiritweb.org/Spirit/tai-chi.html).
 
 

The Physical Benefits of T'ai Chi

T'ai Chi uses one's internal energy, and channels it to be readily available through internal power.  Physically, this internal exercise works muscles and joints to unify breathing and thus "improves the circulation of the blood and the lymphatic gland," increases the power of the immune system, and "balances regulatory functions."  T'ai Chi concentrates on harmonizing muscles and blood flow to the heart, due to deep breathing, which in turn allows a "greater amount of oxygen [to be] available for consumption."  This circulation is beneficial to the heart as it prevents many "diseases of the heart and the viscera and inflexibility of the cardiac muscle" (http://www.spiritweb.org/Spirit/tai-chi.html).  On his web page, "Application of T'ai Chi Chuan", Vincent Li says that T'ai Chi "serves the purposes of strengthening the central nervous system, improving the blood circulation, increasing nourishment to the heart and the viscera and promoting better digestion;" this means it also helps prevent the process of substitution and the contraction of diseases prone to the aged (http://www.spiritweb.org/Spirit/tai-chi.html).  The H. Won T'ai Chi Institute believes that T'ai Chi can also cure hypertension, ulcers, and other gastrointestinal disorders and complaints (http://www.nytaichi.com/tcc.htm).  The benefits of T'ai Chi are that it "offers a balanced drill to the muscles and joints of the various parts of the body in the way of complicated actions which, in turn, are regulated by the timing of deep breathing and the movement of the diaphragm" (wysiwg://25/http://www.spiritweb.org/Spirit/tai-chi.html).
 

Physical vs. Mental Benefits of T'ai Chi

T'ai Chi is a physical and cognitive exercise, and participants begin to develop emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  Psychologically, this exercise increases communication between the body and the mind and enables one to deal with others more effectively.  It reduces stress and creates a calmness and confidence that is displayed throughout everyday life.  Relaxation and a feeling of well being are among the first noticeable differences in a T'ai Chi student.  This sensitivity should increase as the student becomes more aware of "where tension is held and how to relax and soften" (http://members.tripod.com/~donalo/introd.htm).  As a form of meditation, T'ai Chi emphasizes complete relaxation of the body and mind.  In his T'ai Chi Ch'uan overview, Ron Perfetti says that "as both healing art and martial art, this emphasis on the internal aspect of the study is primary" (http://www.maui.net/~taichi4u/overview.html).  The focus is more on the "mental and energetic levels," rather than the physical level.  Traditional Chinese Medicine believes that being "weak-minded" inhibits anyone from achieving anything; therefore strengthening one's mind is a primary focus in T'ai Chi.


 
 

Specific Benefits of T'ai Chi:  Joint Problems

T'ai Chi has different methods for curing many different ailments and/or problems.  Joint problems are usually very receptive to T'ai Chi training.  Arthritis and rheumatism are common ailments of T'ai Chi students before they begin instruction.  However, this exercise is most beneficial as a preventative therapy.  Ron Perfetti explains that "T'ai Chi is emphatically joint oriented [and] the basic idea is that the joints govern movement in the body, both physical and energetic."  By experiencing T'ai Chi, all the joints of the body, as well as muscles, profit.  T'ai Chi helps arthritis and rheumatism by "the improvement of circulation due to a strengthening and expanding of range of movement of the joints" (http://www.maui.net/~taichi4u/specifics.html).
 

Back Problems

Ron Perfetti also says that some of the greatest responses he has seen to T'ai Chi have been from people suffering from back problems.  The study of T'ai Chi stresses the importance of moving the trunk as a whole, therefore it helps to break the habit of twisting one's back, which reduces tension and compression in the discs and vertebra.  Moving from the pelvis and allowing the legs to hold more body weight reduces much of the discomfort in the back.  This quality of movement, which enhances circulation throughout the body, is also advantageous for increasing blood circulation throughout the veins.  Traditional Chinese Medicine evaluates one's health "in term's of quality and amount of circulation; the better one's circulation, the better one's health" (http://www.maui.net/~taichi4u/specifics.html).
 

Stress Reduction

Another very useful aspect of T'ai Chi is its aid in the reduction of stress.  Stress affects people in many different ways, however, it is usually expressed through stiffness and/or pain in the body.  Ron Perfetti relates that "anxiety, worry, fear, and a host of related negative mental states can and do cause serious physical symptoms including increased blood pressure, impaired organ functions, and accumulated tension in the muscles and joints which can lead to arthritis and other joint afflictions" (http://www.maui.net/~taichi4u/specifics.html).  T'ai Chi's entire body experience commands relaxation and a cleared, focused mind.  Through deep breathing, proper posture, and muscle relaxation, this exercise is calming and focuses on connecting one with one's body, while stress tension and feelings are overcome.

 

T'ai Chi for the Elderly

There are few scientific studies on the effectiveness of T'ai Chi for improving one's way of life, reducing stress, or increasing energy; however, two studies are found on the Internet about reducing the number of falls in elderly people through T'ai Chi training.  The two studies were sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and "are the first involoving T'ai Chi to be reported by scientists in a special fraility reduction program" (http://www.nih.gov/nia/new/press/taichi.htm).  The first study, ran by Steven L. Wolf, Ph.D., and colleagues at the Emory University School of Medicine, included 200 participants whose minimum age was 70.  The study found that "older people taking part in a 15-week T'ai Chi program reduced their risk of falling by 47.5 percent."  This form of exercise, although condensed from the usual 108 moves to the ten that would be most beneficial, was ideal for these elderly people who may have a hard time remembering moves as the form grows longer and more complex.  The participants "were divided into groups for T'ai Chi, computerized balance training, and education."  The participants practiced at home, without be monitored, two times a day for at least 15 minutes, in addition to 15 progressive weekly sessions.  The computerized balance training group used a "computer-operated balance platform" on which they were aligned and trained to improve their balance, like an interactive video game.  The education group maintained their usual exercise routine and attended health awareness classes.  The subjects in the T'ai Chi group reduced their rate of falling, whereas the subjects of the computer balance training did not show a substantial decrease.  The T'ai Chi participants also found at the end of the study that they "took more deliberate steps, decreased their walking speed slightly, . . . [and reduced their] fear of falling" by 15% (http://www.nih.gov/nia/new/press/taichi.htm).

The second study, headed by Leslie Wolfson, MD., and colleagues at the University of Connecticut Health Center, observed a group of elderly participants over a 6-month period practicing T'ai Chi exercises.  The purpose of this study was to find various means to "improve balance and strength among older people" (http://www.nih.gov/nia/new/press/taichi.htm).  This group included 110 participants, averaging age 80, whose training lasted for three months.  They were divided into four groups of various training sessions, and all four groups took weekly T'ai Chi classes for six months after the training period.  The subjects were evaluated before any training, immediately after, and 6-months after a follow-up T'ai Chi program.  All subjects participated in the T'ai Chi training, and without a control group to compare results to, it is difficult to report the sole effects of T'ai Chi on balance and strength. After the 6-month follow up T'ai Chi training, however, results of the gains immediately following the balance training somewhat decreased. This study suggests that T'ai Chi could be a low intensity work out to maintain strength and balance among the elderly.

 

Medical Studies on T'ai Chi-

T'ai Chi and Cardiorespiratory Functions

A study by Lai, Lan, Wong, and Teng (1995)  analyzed the effects of T'ai Chi on "the cardiorespiratory function of older individuals" (Lai, et.al. 1995: page 1222).  The subjects of the study lived in the same community and practiced relatively active lifestyles.  The study excluded subjects with a history of "significant cardiovascular, pulmonary, metabolic, and musculoskeletal diseases" (Lai, et.al. 1995: page 1223).  The two subject groups, a T'ai Chi group and a sedentary group, were formed of 23 males and 22 females and 21 males and 18 females, respectively.  The subjects' resting heart rates and blood pressures were tested before and after a bicycle exercise test, the flexibility of their thoracic/lumbar spines were evaluated, and their triceps and subscapular skin folds were measured. 

Prior to the study, subjects in the T'ai Chi group had practiced T'ai Chi for an average of 6.7 years.  The training sessions "included 20 minutes of warm up (including stretching exercise, gentle calisthenics, and balance training), 24 minutes of T'ai Chi practicing, and 10 minutes of cool down" (Lai, et.al. 1995: page 1224).  Throughout the baseline tests, subjects of the T'ai Chi group had notably higher oxygen uptake and spine flexibility than the control group.  Also, the T'ai Chi group produced better results in the skin fold tests than the control group.  In the follow-up tests 2 years later, the T'ai Chi male group decreased its maximal oxygen uptake by 2.8%, and the male control group decreased its maximal oxygen uptake by 6.6%.  The T'ai Chi group of females decreased their maximum oxygen uptake by 2.9%, which was not significantly different from that of the female control group.  However, in the sedentary female group, subjects displayed a "greater decline of maximal aerobic capacity" (Lai, et.al. 1995: page 1225).  These results proved that the practice of T'ai Chi is "beneficial for maintaining the cardiorespiratory function in older individuals" and it may "decrease the rate of decline in cardiorespiratory function" (Lai, et.al. 1995: page 1227).  The study supports the idea that T'ai Chi increases flexibility, especially in elderly people.  However, the results of the maximal oxygen uptake tests displayed that T'ai Chi is not significantly more aerobic than doing nothing at all.  To be considered an aerobic exercise, T'ai Chi ought to be more vigorous to elevate the heart rate.  Due to its light physical strain, however, it is evident why T'ai Chi is becoming a more common form of exercise or movement for the elderly.
 

T'ai Chi and Post-stressor Recovery

.A study conducted by Putai Jin (1992) from La Trobe University in Australia analyzed the efficacy of T'ai Chi in relation to such activities as brisk walking, meditation, and reading, for reducing mental and emotional stress.  Mental pressure was produced in the laboratory with mental arithmetic and other difficult tests, and emotional strain was triggered by a film, 'Horrible Experiences: A True Story,' which was proven by stress researchers to be disturbing and stressful.  The study tested the two components, physical and cognitive, of T'ai Chi in terms of cardiovascular, hormonal, and mood changes.

The subjects of the study were 48 males and 48 females in their mid-thirties who practiced T'ai Chi in eight T'ai Chi clubs in Melbourne.  They came from a wide-range of professions and various ethnic backgrounds.  All participants had been practicing T'ai Chi for between 16 and 70 months and were randomly assigned to one of the four subject groups (Jin, P. 1992). The first session included each group attending a 15 minute rest period, in addition to the hour of forced emotional stress. At the next session, the T'ai Chi group practiced the martial art for an hour, while the other groups completed their tasks.

The subjects' heart rates, urine samples, saliva samples, blood pressure, and anxiety levels were tested at various times throughout the experiment. The heart rates and the blood pressures of the T'ai Chi group and the brisk walking group were similar. However, the T'ai Chi subjects had significantly higher heart rates than those of the meditation and reading group during treatment. The study also showed that "systolic blood pressure was elevated for the T'ai Chi group but dropped for the meditation group and the reading group, and that the DBP was higher during T'ai Chi performance in comparison with meditation" (Jin, P. 1992: page 364). By means of the urinary test, they discovered that the adrenaline level after meditation was higher than that after T'ai Chi exercise. Finally, all subjects' moods increased after their respective activities; the T'ai Chi group, however, felt more vigorous and reduced more anxiety than did the reading group. The data obtained from this study supports the proposition that all four of the activities, T'ai Chi, brisk walking, meditation, and reading, are helpful for reducing mental and emotional stress. The practice of T'ai Chi, however, seemed to be superior than the other three activities for decreasing stress.

 

T'ai Chi vs. Balance, Flexibility, and More!

Yet another study was conducted on the health benefits of T'ai Chi for the elderly. The purpose of this study "was to evaluate the effects of T'ai Chi Chih, a modified form of T'ai Chi, on balance, flexibility, mood, health status, and blood pressure in a group of community-dwelling elders" with an average age of 70 (Schaller, K. 1996: page 13). In this quasi-experimental design, the 46 subjects volunteered and chose to be in either the experimental group or the control group. The subjects of the T'ai Chi group attended an hour session once a week for 10 weeks and were asked to practice at home at least three times per week. The control group, throughout these ten weeks, continued their previous level of activity. All subjects were tested a week before intervention and one week after the final T'ai Chi lesson.

The T'ai Chi group improved its mean score by 50% in the eyes-open portion of the balance test, while the control group's scores decreased by 2%. In fact, "this is the first controlled study to report an improvement in balance after T'ai Chi intervention in older adults without previous T'ai Chi experience" (Schaller, K. 1996: page 15). Additional results of this study did not support the four other hypotheses established by the experimenter. These hypotheses included that the T'ai Chi participants would have greater flexibility than non-practitioners, T'ai Chi participants would have better mood scores than the control group, T'ai Chi participants would have better health statuses compared to the non-practitioners, and T'ai Chi participants would have lower blood pressures than the control group. It is possible that 10 weeks was not enough time to improve flexibility and mood with T'ai Chi in people that had had no previous experience with this martial art. The report also states that "while the reductions in blood pressure in the T'ai Chi group were not statistically significant, a 4.6% reduction in SBP and a 3.6% reduction in DBP might be clinically significant in someone with mild to moderate hypertension" (Schaller, K. 1996. page 15). Although the results of this study were far from impressive for the participation in T'ai Chi, the study of T'ai Chi is still beneficial for it's participant. This low intensity exercise is far from aerobic, however it can be advantageous to its older participants for maintaining balance, flexibility, good health status, and low blood pressure.

 

T'ai Chi and the Reduction of Falls

As reported above, the study by Wolf and associates was one of the first involving T'ai Chi to be reported by scientists in a special fraility reduction program. The official report of this study included much more information about the methods and results of this study than the evaluation on the Internet. The three groups, those studying T'ai Chi, those on computerized balance training, and the control group, were comprised of participants age 70 or older. The exclusion criteria for this study were "the presence of debilitating conditions such as severe cognitive impairments, metastatic cancer, crippling arthritis, Parkinson's disease or major stroke, or profound visual deficits that could compromise balance or ambulation" (Wolf, et.al. 1996: page 490).

The T'ai Chi classes consisted of ten moves of T'ai Chi that gradually reduced the "base of standing support until single limb stance was achieved, increased body and trunk rotation, and reciporcal arem movements" (Wolf, et.al. 1996: page 490). The computerized balance training progressively challenged balance skills and forced the participants to move their center of mass with no foot displacement. Lastly, the education group participants did not alter their exercise levels for the duration of the study and met weekly to discuss health topics of interest to older people.

The results of the study showed that participation in T'ai Chi "had less loss in left-hand grip strength, reduced ambulation speed, and lowered systolic blood pressure after a 12-minute walk" (Wolf, et.al. 1996: page 495). The T'ai Chi group also reduced its fear of falling as compared to the education group. The subjects of the T'ai Chi group also reduced their rate of fall occurrences substantially, wheras the balance training group did not. This information shows that T'ai Chi can benefit vital functions of older people and can be viewed as a productive form of exercise.

 

Internet Information v. Medical Information

There are very few studies, especially reported on the Internet, conducted on the benefits, physically or psychologically, of T'ai Chi.  However, the Chinese feel very strongly about their form of exercise and relaxation, as a form of healing, as well.  T'ai Chi has been practiced for thousands of years and recently has become a common form of exercise and rehabilitation.  Every source of information found on the Internet about T'ai Chi was extremely supportive and very enthusiastic about sharing its knowledge of this treasured art form.  There are many sources of information about this martial art available, however many are connected with class schedules, information about instructors, and locations.  Many of the Internet sources make claims about the benefits of T'ai Chi without substantial evidence. T'ai Chi has been linked to benefiting almost every ailment, from joint problems to cardiovascular diseases, although there have been relatively few conclusive studies completed. There is absolutely no evidence that the practice of T'ai Chi has negative effects on anyone if practiced properly, however, the degree of its benefits are still disputed. 

 

Conclusion

T'ai Chi has recently become a common form of exercise in studios, rehabilitation centers, and even public gyms.  The distinction and attraction of this martial art is not the learning of steps or movements, it is the entire body experience of relaxation and peacefulness.  As Ron Perfetti states, "The intention T'ai Chi is to allow one the opportunity to become more aware of the natural laws which govern change; not just change in the body as affects physical, structural movement, but rather principles of change and movement that govern every aspect of our lives and the world around us" (http://www.maui.net/~taichi4u/overview.html).
 
 
 

 

Bibliography

Lai, J. S., Lan, C., Wong, M. K., Teng, S.H. (1995). Two-year trends in cardiorespiratory function among older Tai Chi Chuan practitioners and sedentary objects. Journal of American Geriatrics Society, 43, 1222-1227.

Jin, P. (1992). Efficacy of Tai Chi, brisk walking, meditation, and reading in reducing mental and emotional stress. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 36, 361-369.

Schaller, K. J. (1996). Tai Chi Chih: an exercise option for older adults. Journal of Gerontological Nursing, 22, 12-16.

Wolf, S. L., Barnhart, H. X., Kutner, N. G., McNeely, E., Cooler, C., Xu, T. (1996). Reducing fraility and falls in older persons: an investigation of Tai Chi and computerized balance training. Journal of American Geriatrics Society, 44, 489-497.

 

 

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