Health Benefits of Tai Chi
If you walk around Mile Square Park in Southern California in the early morning, you would probably notice some older folks doing an exercise that looks like a slow Chinese dance. Known in the West as Tai Chi (traditional Chinese: 太極拳), T'ai chi ch'uan, tàijíquán, or T'ai chi, this type of exercise is literally translated to "Supreme Ultimate Fist," which represents a Chinese martial art technique that helps to circulate the body's internal qi. Qi (traditional Chinese: 氣) is defined as the body's life energy, often known as life force, which is literally synonymous with breath, air, or gas.
Tai Chi is defined as a "low-cost, low-tech, low-impact, moderate-intensity exercise"1 recommended for people of all ages, especially older adults. To date, modern Tai Chi has been used in hospitals, clinics, and community and senior centers to encourage longevity and good health, or as a sport, ranging from a 13-postures form to 67 combined postural movements.
Often described as a moving meditation, practitioners are encouraged to perform slow and gentle movement with mind-body awareness. In fact, the study of Tai Chi has been well-researched. For example, research has been developed to study the efficacy of a 12-week Tai Chi intervention in older stroke survivors. This study demonstrated that Tai Chi exercise (approximately 150 minutes per week) is both well-tolerated and preferred over the "u sual c are" of weekly reminders (phone calls and written materials/resources) for participation in community-based physical activity.1 Another study found that 60 minutes of Tai Chi at three times per week appeared to have reduced the risk factors for falls by increasing the stride width, increasing quality of life, and decreasing pain.2 More benefits of Tai Chi were demonstrated in a quasi-experimental study which revealed that Tai Chi interventions benefit in reduction of modifiable cardiovascular risk factors, improved health behaviors, mental scores, role-emotional and vitality dimensions of life.3
Psychologically, patients with cerebral vascular disorder (CVD) significantly benefited with Tai Chi interventions in improvement of sleep quality, anxiety/insomnia, and severe depression score.4 Psychosocially, a 26-week Tai Chi program in a nursing home setting demonstrated significant improvement in participants' self esteem, and both the physical and mental components of health-related quality of life.5
In 2007, t he National Institutes of Health (NIH) News for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society by Michael R. Irwin, MD, from Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, Semel Institute for Neuroscience, at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The study was notably the first NIH-sponsored clinical trial to encourage behavioral intervention in avoiding the varicella-zoster virus (VZV )—commonly known as the "shingles virus"— in older adults.6 To quote Richard J. Hodes, M D , a National Institute of Aging (NIA) d irector, "one in five people who have had chickenpox will get shingles later in life, usually after age 50, and the risk increases as people get older.” He continues, “more research is needed, but this study suggests that the Tai Chi intervention tested, in combination with immunization, may enhance protection of older adults from this painful condition.”7
According to Andrew Monjan, Ph D , chief of the NIA's Neurobiology of Aging Branch, “Dr. Irwin’s research team has demonstrated that a centuries-old behavioral intervention, Tai Chi, resulted in a level of immune response similar to that of a modern biological intervention, the varicella vaccine, and that Tai Chi boosted the positive effects of the vaccine."7
Most fitness centers, community centers , or yoga studios now offer Tai Chi classes. It is not recommended to practice Tai Chi immediately after a meal, during exhaustion, or in suspected active infection. Consult your health care provider before starting Tai Chi, especially during pregnancy, hernia, back pain, severe osteoporosis, or fractures. However, the NIH and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) do not recommend utilization of Tai Chi as a sole replacement for conventional care, or to postpone consultation with a health care provider regarding a medical problem. 8
If you are interested in becoming a Tai Chi instructor, you will be delighted to know that there is no standard training or licensing in the f ederal g overnment or individual states regulations. However, it is advised that an experienced student obtain a master teacher's approval before becoming an instructor. It is also advised that potential instructors seek training programs that award certificates or weekend workshops. For example, programs such as American Tai Chi and Qi Gong Association offer independent accreditation of Tai Chi practitioners and schools.
To learn more about the mind-body benefits of Tai Chi, please visit the NCCAM website at http://nccam.nih.gov/health/taichi.
Nina La, DC, L.Ac
Dr. Nina La, DC, LAc is an adjunct professor with Kaplan University’s School of Health Sciences and teaches courses such as Vitamins, Herbs, and Nutritional Supplements in the Bachelor of Science in Health and Wellness program. She graduated valedictorian and summa cum laude from the Southern California University of Health Sciences with a Doctor of Chiropractic and a Master of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Dr. La also holds a bachelor’s degree in integrative biology from the University of California, Berkeley. She is a board-certified chiropractic physician and a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist.
A lover of knowledge, Dr. La has taught college-level anatomy and physiology courses, and has co-authored two peer-reviewed articles on the efficacy of herbal medicine. She currently has two private practices in California, and is in the process of becoming an allied staff member for Tri-City Regional Hospital