Taiji and Health

Taiji (also commonly known as Tai Chi or Taijiquan) was invented several hundred years ago in China as a martial art.  Besides being a martial art, it is also an extremely good health-enhancing exercise.  Because Taiji is characterized by slow, soft movements that have low impacts on the body, it is ideally suited as an exercise for senior citizens, although it is also a good exercise for people of all ages.  This article provides a brief discussion of a few examples of the health benefits of Taiji.

Unlike many other exercises and sports activities, Taiji can be learned and continue to be practiced by senior citizens in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.  Although the Taiji movements are not necessarily easy to learn and remember, they can definitely be learned and remembered by even senior citizens if they satisfy three requirements:

  1. Have a competent teacher to teach them.
  2. Have a movie clip to review the movements in case they forget any parts of it.
  3. Practice on a regular basis, e.g., at least every other day, even if it is just for 10-15 minutes of practice each time.  Of course, the health benefits will be significantly greater if the practices are longer.

There are three components of Taiji:  Movement, meditation, and deep breathing.  All the major muscle groups are utilized in executing the gentle, slow movements of Taiji.  These movements can improve strength, flexibility, coordination, and muscle tone.  The meditation aspect of Taiji involves concentration, relaxation, and using the mind to lead the movements.  It frees the mind from worries and anxieties, relaxes the mind and body, but at the same time enhances concentration, and contributes to cerebral activities.  The deep breathing aspect releases tension, facilitates blood circulation and increases oxygen supply to various parts of the body (for a more detailed description of breathing and Taiji, see the article “Breathing and Taijiquan”.

In recent years, there have been more and more scientific and medical researches that have found evidence for the health benefits of Taiji.  For example, the January 2007 issue of the Newsletter of the Pacific College of Medicine (http://www.pacificcollege.edu/eZine/2007/jan/index.html) stated that “in a recent study in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, researchers concluded that the movements associated with Tai Chi helped seniors improve their physical functioning.  Study participants who took Tai Chi twice a week for a 6 month period noticed a significant improvement in their ability to accomplish daily tasks such as carrying groceries, walking up stairs, or moving medium-sized objects.  …  Those who took Tai Chi were less likely to fall – one of the largest causes of serious injury for seniors.”

Another recent study was reported in a 3/23/2007 Reuters article (http://www.healthcentral.com/diet-exercise/news-33454-66.html).  It reports on a study led by Professor Michael Irwin, from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which concluded that “Tai Chi can strengthen the immune system in the elderly and boost the potency of a vaccine against the virus that causes shingles.  …  They compared 112 elderly people who took Tai Chi classes three times a week for 16 weeks and others who attended health education classes.  Both groups were also immunized with a dose of a shingles vaccine.  At the end of the 25-week study the level of immunity of people who did Tai Chi was two times higher than the other group.  They also functioned better physically and mentally.”

The article also said “Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus.  People who had chicken pox as children are susceptible to shingles.  About one third of adults over 60 years old will suffer from shingles.  The virus can remain dormant in the body and as the immune system weakens with age it may cause shingles, which can be very painful and usually lasts three to five weeks.”  It also quoted Professor Irwin “These are exciting findings, because the positive results of this study also have implications for other infectious diseases like influenza and pneumonia.”  Results of this study have been published in the April 2007 issue of the American Geriatrics Society.

There are many different sets of Taiji exercises that one can practice.  Some are easier to learn than others.  It is also possible to formulate a simplified set of Taiji exercises that can be considered as a set of warm-up exercises before doing the more traditional Taiji sets, such as the Simplified Yang Style 24 Form or the Mixed Style 42 Form.  Alternatively, such simplified set of Taiji exercises can also be considered to be a complete set of exercises themselves.  I can speak from experience that I have formulated a set of seven simple Taiji-like exercises that can be performed in as little as 10-15 minutes (the time duration depends on the number of repetitions) and that I have successfully taught my 94-year-old mother-in-law in a few short lessons.

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