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The health benefits of tai chi

Wellness
Woman enjoying tai chi.

If slow and steady can win the race of life in Aesop’s fable, then slow and gentle can sow a healthy mind and body in the form of tai chi.

A growing body of evidence suggests this form of exercise, which originated in China as a martial art, can improve strength, balance, flexibility and immunity, and can also help relieve pain, stress and anxiety. It’s those kinds of beneficial effects that tend to attract people to tai chi, especially individuals with chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart disease, diabetes and depression.

Because of its health benefits, tai chi is fast becoming an adjunct therapy to primary medical treatments and is catching on as more people learn about its effectiveness. This slow, low-impact form of exercise can not only improve physical health, but also promotes inner peace and tranquility.

“Tai chi offers incredible health benefits,” says Marsha Green, a certified tai chi instructor at Tidelands HealthPoint Center for Health and Fitness, our region’s only medical fitness center. “After practicing and learning tai chi, I was so hooked on it, I couldn’t stop doing it.”

Green’s class, offered Wednesdays at 10:45 a.m. at Tidelands HealthPoint, is geared toward people interested in increasing their strength, flexibility, balance and mental focus. All ages and ability levels are welcome.

Green teaches beginning forms of a variety of tai chi styles, including Sun, Yang and Chen. Yang is the most popular and widely practiced worldwide.

“It’s so soft and gentle,’’ she says. “The rule is you stay within your comfort zone. If you’re doing that, there’s very little chance of hurting yourself. It is great for stroke and cardiac rehabilitation or for anyone interested in learning tai chi.”

What is tai chi?

According to the Tai Chi Health Institute, the purpose of tai chi is to bring the inner and outer self into complete harmony by integrating the mind and body through flowing movements and mindfulness. When the energy force inside the body, known as qi, is empowered through tai chi, it flows smoothly and powerfully throughout the entire body, leading to a more balanced mental state and healthier physique.

“It’s also been called ‘moving meditation,’” Green says, “but I like what [Harvard Medical School] calls it. They call it ‘medication in motion.’”

Anyone can participate in tai chi, which is practiced in a variety of forms and styles and include a series of flowing movements and stretches that encourage focused breathing and self-awareness. Whether you’re in tip-top shape or haven’t exercised in years, tai chi is quite forgiving – it enables you to proceed at your own pace and can easily be adaptable to your limitations, Green says. You just need to find a form that suits your needs.

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Some tai chi styles such as Chen include long and more dynamic movements or, such as Sun, shorter sequences with more emphasis on breathing and meditation. All forms are best performed in loose-fitting clothing that allow for ease of motion.

Even though it’s rooted in Chinese philosophy, a participant is not required to subscribe or adhere to any of its spiritual concepts to reap the health benefits.

How it helps

With regular participation, research suggests that tai chi can help prevent falls in older people by strengthening core muscles and balance, improves stiffness and pain associated with certain illnesses like osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, boosts flexibility, reduces stress and anxiety, bolsters the immune system and can help improve sleep quality.

For Green, tai chi relieved back pain she was experiencing as a result of three collapsed discs.

“My orthopedist asked me how I was even moving,” she says. “What kept me moving is the tai chi. It has helped me ward off surgery and helped me with pain management.”

Green suggests prospective students of tai chi observe a class in action, watch internet videos of tai chi practitioners and stick with it for several classes.

“The biggest challenge for many is slowing down,” Green says. “But tai chi is calming and meditative. You may feel awkward initially, but if you go slow and accept where you are, it will start to flow. If you’re building strength, your body will get you where you need to be. You go at your own pace in tai chi.”

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