How can something this easy be such potent
medicine? Discover the power of this ancient
(Sept. 5, 2006) -- Georgina Duggan just knew she'd wind up
with arthritis in her spine. "My mother and one of my brothers had
back pain from arthritis, so when it started to bother me, I figured
it was something I'd have to live with," says the 60-year-old retiree
in Mississauga, Ontario. But unlike her family, she isn't suffering
anymore. Thanks to an unusual kind of remedy, she's off all her
painkillers and feels better than she has in years.
Duggan went to a chiropractor several times a week for relief. "It
helped some, but I got tired of having to go so often." Her physician
suggested the ancient art of tai chi. Says Duggan: "He thought the
combination of slow movements, meditation, and breathing would help
strengthen my spine and increase my flexibility. I thought, Why not?"
After all, the Chinese have been maintaining their health with
tai chi for centuries. And today, more than 200,000 Americans take tai
chi classes in health clubs--a number that has doubled in the past 4
years, says Rosemary Lavery, a spokesperson for the International
Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association.
Part of tai chi's
appeal is that it doesn't really feel like exercise. "It offers
cardiovascular benefits similar to brisk walking or low-impact
aerobics, but it's much easier on the body," says Ruth Taylor-Piliae,
Phd, RN, a tai chi researcher and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford
University School of Medicine. "It's good for people who might not be
capable of strenuous activity." The stances require you to shift your
weight slowly from one foot to the other--and you have to maintain
control throughout the moves. "This keeps your mind focused, improves
balance, and strengthens your body," Taylor-Piliae
Indeed, tai chi offers stellar health benefits. For
instance, a recent review of 47 studies published in the Archives of
Internal Medicine suggested that tai chi can lower blood pressure;
increase flexibility, strength, and balance; and decrease stress,
anxiety, and depression. Find out what tai chi might do for you from
people who are already practicing.
--Linda Bowers, 57, former administrative
assistant, Kansas City, MO
When layoffs left Linda Bowers
without health insurance 3 years ago, she made the difficult decision
to go off her blood pressure medication. Instead, Bowers got serious
about daily tai chi to maintain a healthier blood pressure. At her
annual checkup--which she paid for out-of-pocket--she was pleasantly
surprised to see her BP remain at a steady 134/82.
Low-intensity exercise can work wonders on blood pressure.
Researchers at the Stanford Prevention Research Center recently had 39
sedentary seniors do 60 minutes of tai chi three times a week for 12
weeks. On average, the group lowered their resting systolic blood
pressure (the larger number) by 13% to a healthier reading of 131
mm/Hg and decreased their resting diastolic BP by 10% to 77
mm/Hg--results similar to those from medication.
aerobic exercise would have helped, "but studies indicate that the
mental component of tai chi may offer an edge," says Taylor-Piliae,
the lead researcher on the study. "Our theory is that the level of
focus that tai chi requires triggers a relaxation response. That, in
turn, helps reduce the volume of blood going to the heart, making the
heart more efficient and thus lowering blood pressure."
"My stress plummeted."
--Sue Gurland, 62,
acupuncturist, Boca Raton, FL
"When I get stressed, all the
tension goes to my head and neck," says Sue Gurland. "Tai chi relieves
my tension. I feel clearheaded and in a much lighter mood." Gurland,
who has been practicing for 30 years, says the discipline has changed
her outlook on life, too. Research suggests that her results are
Studies show the complex series of movements in tai
chi reduce the body's level of cortisol, a stress hormone. In another
Stanford study of 39 seniors, those who practiced an hour of tai chi 3
days a week for 12 weeks boosted their overall sense of well-being. By
the end of the study, participants reported improvement in mood of
about 12%--and a 13% decrease in stress.
get sick as much."
--Diane Rapaport, 67, writer and
publisher, Burns, OR
"I used to have bronchitis three or four
times a year," remembers Diane Rapaport. "It was awful." Since she
started tai chi 6 years ago, however, she hasn't had so much as a
sniffle. Experts believe tai chi decreases the release of
catecholamine, a neurotransmitter that has been shown to dampen the
immune system. A 2003 UCLA study found that a three-times-a-week
routine enhanced T cell function by 45% after 4 months. (T cells
attack virus-infected cells.)
Though the research looked
specifically at the virus that causes shingles, "we believe tai chi
would improve resistance to other viruses as well," says Michael
Irwin, MD, lead author of the study and a professor of psychiatry at
the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA.
"Tai chi improved my balance."
--Bob Erler, 68,
retired librarian, Bronx, NY
Six years ago, Bob Erler was
diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a rare condition that
reduces sensation in limbs, fingers, and toes--and caused Erler to
frequently fall. Practicing tai chi about five times a week, however,
has given him remarkable results: "I used to fall about twice a month.
Last year, I fell just twice altogether," Erler says. "I've always
liked to walk and keep active, but I became fearful after my
diagnosis. Today, I'm confident and more trusting of my body."
Says Rhayun Song, PhD, an assistant professor of nursing at
Daewon Science College in South Korea: "To prevent falls, you need
balance and muscle strength, especially in the lower body." Tai chi
seems to improve both. In Song's recent study of 59 seniors, the
researcher found that those who did 35 minutes of tai chi three times
a week for 12 weeks were only half as likely to fall as those who
didn't practice the discipline.
Take a class
Many YMCAs, hospitals, and
community centers offer them. Check out the Institute of Integral
Qigong and Tai Chi to find an instructor in your area. (Qigong can
vary from tai chi to the more vigorous kung fu.)
We like Sunrise Tai Chi ($30) for its variety (20-, 40-, and
60-minute workouts) and Scott Cole's Discover Tai Chi for Beginners
($14) for its accessibility. (Both are available at
Try Denise Austin's three moves to
boost balance, strength and flexibility.