Tai Chi — Medication in Motion

The article I wrote “Tai Chi: Medication in Motion” appears in the January 2011 issue of American Legion magazine.

The science of Tai Chi is just now catching up with (and justifying) what Tai Chi masters have known for centuries – this mind-body practice, which originated in China as a martial art, leads to longer life, more vigor and flexibility, better balance and mobility, and a sense of well being. Cutting-edge research now supports the long-standing claims that Tai Chi has a favorable impact on the health of the heart, bones, nerves and muscles, immune system, and the mind. In fact, Tai Chi might well be called “medication in motion.”

Tai chi combines meditation with slow, gentle, graceful movements, as well as deep breathing and relaxation to move vital energy (what the Chinese call qi) throughout the body. “Tai Chi can heighten bodily awareness and inner focus, make body movements more graceful and efficient, enhance natural breathing, and help you attain peace of mind,” says Dr. Peter Wayne, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who has practiced and studied Tai Chi for more than 35 years. “Our fast-paced, multi-tasking, over-stimulated, more-is-better, Type-A, Western lifestyle can be counteracted by the ‘meditation in motion’ of Tai Chi.”

New research provides insight into the underlying physiological mechanisms that explain how Tai Chi works. This knowledge has enabled Dr. Wayne and his colleagues to shape the essential elements of Tai Chi into a program to use in the rehabilitation — and prevention — of many health conditions. They have developed and successfully tested a simplified Tai Chi protocol in a number of clinical trials. A 12-week controlled study of Tai Chi in heart failure found that the Tai Chi participants were able to walk longer and faster and had improved quality of life. What’s more, they had reduced blood levels of B-type natriuretic protein, an indicator of heart failure.

A newly completed Harvard randomized controlled trial of post-menopausal women diagnosed with low bone density used bone density markers and computerized motion analysis to quantify how Tai Chi affects weight-bearing in the skeleton. The preliminary results show that Tai Chi arrested bone loss in the hip and spine compared to women who had usual care, says Dr. Wayne.

Many other studies have shown the health benefits of Tai Chi. A Harvard review of 26 studies in English or Chinese of Tai Chi and high blood pressure found that Tai Chi lowered blood pressure in 85% of the trials. Tai Chi has also been shown to improve balance, reduce falls in older women, and increase bone strength – all important ways to prevent fractures from low bone density.

And studies show Tai Chi may be effective for rehabilitation and prevention of chronic low back pain, can reduce the pain of knee osteoarthritis, can reduce stress, enhance mood and sleep, and may strengthen the immune system, which improves the body’s resistance to disease.

“The integration of Tai Chi as an adjunct into the medical world can help prevent the progression of many chronic diseases,” says Dr. Wayne.

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