Using Tai Chi to Build Strength
Watching a group of people doing tai chi, an exercise often called “meditation in motion,” it may be hard to imagine that its slow, gentle, choreographed movements could actually make people stronger. Not only stronger mentally but stronger physically and healthier as well.
I certainly was surprised by its effects on strength, but good research — and there’s been a fair amount of it by now — doesn’t lie. If you’re not ready or not able to tackle strength-training with weights, resistance bands or machines, tai chi may just be the activity that can help to increase your stamina and diminish your risk of injury that accompanies weak muscles and bones.
Don’t get scared by its frequent description as an “ancient martial art.” Tai chi (and a related exercise called Qigong) does not resemble the strenuous, gravity-defying karate moves you may have seen in Jackie Chan films. Tai chi moves can be easily learned and executed by people of all ages and states of health, even those in their 90s, in wheelchairs or bedridden.
It’s been eight years since I last summarized the known benefits of this time-honored form of exercise, and it has since grown in popularity in venues like Y’s, health clubs and community and senior centers. By now it is likely that millions more people have become good candidates for the help tai chi can provide to their well-being.
First, a reprise of what I previously wrote as to why most of us should consider including tai chi into our routines for stronger bodies and healthier lives.
It is a low-impact activity suitable for people of all ages and most states of health, including those who have long been sedentary or “hate” exercise.
It is a gentle, relaxing activity that involves deep breathing but does not work up a sweat or leave you out of breath.
It does not place undue stress on joints and muscles and therefore is unlikely to cause pain or injury.
It requires no special equipment or outfits, only lightweight, comfortable clothing.
Once proper technique is learned from a qualified instructor, it is a low-cost activity that can be practiced anywhere, anytime.
One more fact: Beneficial results from tai chi are often quickly realized. Significant improvements involving a host of different conditions can be achieved within 12 weeks of tai chi exercises done for an hour at a time twice a week.
Much of the research, which was reviewed in 2015 by researchers at Beijing University and Harvard Medical School, has focused on how tai chi has helped people with a variety of medical problems. It is summarized in a new book from Harvard Health Publications, “An Introduction to Tai Chi,” which includes the latest studies of healthy people whose mission was health preservation as well as people with conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and osteoporosis.
Of the 507 studies included in the 2015 review, 94.1 percent found positive effects of tai chi. These included 192 studies involving only healthy participants, 142 with the goal of health promotion or preservation and 50 seeking better balance or prevention of falls.
This last benefit may be the most important of all, given that every 11 seconds an older adult is treated in the emergency room following a fall, and one in five falls results in a fracture, concussion or other serious injury.
For example, in an analysis of high-quality studies published last year in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers at the University of Jaen in Spain reported that older adults who did one-hour tai chi sessions one to three times a week for 12 to 26 weeks were 43 percent less likely to fall and half as likely to incur a fall-related injury.
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