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What the science says about Tai Chi

November 25, 2008

It can reduce falls in the elderly!

Several studies have shown that regular tai chi practice has benefits: It can reduce falls in the elderly or those with balance disorders sometimes dramatically. In one 1996 Atlanta study, elderly people who practiced tai chi for 15 weeks reduced their risk of multiple falls by 47.5 percent. Falls are a particular danger for elders and others with brittle bones, or osteoporosis. For such people, falls frequently result in broken bones.

Research has shown tai chi has other benefits, too. Participants in the Atlanta study also had lower blood pressure at the end of the study; and a 1999 study that looked at people with multiple sclerosis who practiced tai chi found that it contributed to an overall improvement in quality of life for people with chronic, disabling conditions. 

While there are no good, controlled studies that prove tai chi specifically benefits people with arthritis by reducing pain or inflammation, there is a study from 1991 that evaluates its safety for rheumatoid arthritis patients. It concluded that 10 weeks of tai chi classes did not make joint problems worse, and says the weight-bearing aspects of this exercise has the potential to stimulate bone growth and strengthen connective tissue.

And a recent University of Arizona opinion paper on mind-body alternatives, such as tai chi and meditation, for rheumatic diseases concluded that stress and pain are closely related, and therapies that focus on psychological as well as physical function could be beneficial, when used along with conventional medications.

But doctors don’t need proof to approve an exercise as safe and soothing as tai chi – even for themselves. Dr. Lam, who is 52, developed osteoarthritis in his neck, back and hands when he was in his 20s, and began practicing and then teaching tai chi to keep his own arthritis under control.

“Given its low impact and evidence that it tends to increase muscle strength and balance and give general pain relief, we think it’s a worthwhile option for arthritis patients,”says William L. Haskell, PhD, deputy director of the Stanford [University] Center for Research in Disease Prevention in California.

Stanford has offered tai chi classes for years, and is launching a major National Institute on Aging study to assess benefits of various types of exercise on healthy aging. A year-long study of tai chi for those 60 and older is part of the project. While this study won’t look at arthritis specifically, the data is expected to provide evidence of tai chi’s general benefits.

From → Tai Chi

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