Wed. Sep 28th, 2022

Every day we read or hear about the benefits of regular exercise, but there are not often reasonable guidelines for the “over-50 crowd,” people with joint or other chronic pain issues, or those just not able to walk distances for health or social reasons. There are many approaches to healthy physical activity. 

How about martial arts? Actually, yes! Not the martial arts displayed by Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Michelle Yeoh kicking and flying in the movies, but there are martial arts that anyone can do to improve overall health and well-being. 

Tai chi is a martial art that focuses on slow, gentle, rhythmic and meditative movements. The movement is designed to promote a sense of well-being and an inner peace. It connects the body with the mind through “meditation in motion.” 

The term “tai chi” has been translated from Chinese in various ways, including “internal martial art” and “supreme ultimate fist.” 

Tai chi is a Chinese martial art that dates as far back as 500 B.C. The exercise is a series of slow, meditative body movements that were originally designed as a method of self-defense. 

The movements use internal energy and such subtle movements. A tai chi master may be able to subdue an attacker in such a way that people watching may not be able to see how it was done. 

Tai chi has evolved into an exercise used primarily for inner relaxation and stress reduction. It is a noncompetitive and self-paced regimen of stretching and gentle physical exercise. It involves a series of postures and movements that flow one into another without stopping. The body stays in constant motion. There are many different styles and variations of movements, and all require concentration on the movements themselves, which reduces the stresses of the external world.

Tai chi descends from qigong, an ancient Chinese discipline that is a part of traditional Chinese medicine that integrates the mind, breath and movement. This integration and purpose can create a natural balance of energy and an inner sense of calm.

Anyone can practice tai chi. Age, weight, chronic illness and physical disability are no barriers to practice because the emphasis is technique and rhythm over brute strength. It is low impact so gentle on joints. It requires no special equipment, can be done to music or in silence, can be done alone or in a group, indoors or outside. 

Although tai chi has been practiced for centuries, formal study of its health benefits has been conducted only in recent years. Stress reduction is the most obvious advantage, and this can extend well beyond the exercise period. Other health benefits shown are an increase in energy, endurance, flexibility and muscle strength. These, in turn, may prevent falls and relieve chronic pain. 

Tai chi may reduce anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure and improve the quality of sleep. Cardiovascular fitness is improved, especially in less physically active older adults. 

An overall heightened awareness of surroundings and an improved sense of well-being often follow sustained tai chi exercise. Scientific research into the health benefits of tai chi is ongoing. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has funded numerous studies looking at tai chi as an immune system enhancer, its role in improving hypertension, cardiovascular disease and osteoarthritis. 

The British Medical Journal published a study (March 2018) showing that tai chi was more beneficial than aerobic exercise for fibromyalgia symptoms. It was also studied for improving quality of life in people with HIV infection by boosting T cell counts and relieving stress (Applied Nursing Research March 2006).

Learning tai chi techniques is neither time consuming nor burdensome. Home videos, books and classes are available to introduce the various movements. A live instructor is best able to show the correct postures and movements and how to regulate your breathing. While tai chi is slow and gentle, it is possible to sustain an injury if not done correctly. A tai chi instructor can teach techniques in balance and injury prevention. 

The greatest benefits come from regular exercise. We have all seen videos of several elderly Chinese practicing tai chi with their neighbors before getting started on their day’s work. Most do this daily. Consult your PCP if you have chronic joint problems, heart disease or osteoporosis. These conditions should not prevent a person from engaging in tai chi exercise, but initial caution may be advised.

Tai chi is for anyone who wants to try this soft approach to exercise for good health and stress relief.

Mia Smitt is a longtime nurse practitioner. She writes a regular column for Tucson Local Media.

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