A centuries-old Chinese martial art is seen more and more these days, people in parks, community centers, YMCAs, gyms, churches, and living rooms across the country are performing tai chi.But not because of their interest in martial training, but for its reported physical and mental health benefits.
While the emphasis on breathing and inner stillness relieves stress and anxiety, Tai chi’s slow, repetitive movements provide a low-impact method for strengthening the body’s muscular, skeletal, and organ systems. Also and added benefit, it burns more calories than surfing and nearly as many as downhill skiing.
Studies have shown tai chi can improve people’s overall health in numerous ways. Studies have shown tai chi may help lower cholesterol, improve cardiovascular and respiratory function, reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and minimize the severity of diabetes. Researchers have now found that regular tai chi exercise can also help reduce pain and improve knee function among seniors with osteoarthritis.
Affecting about 4.3 million Americans over the age of 60, Osteoarthritis of the knee is very common among older adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this joint disease can lead to stiffness, restricted movement, increase the risk of falls and fractures, adding to feelings of depression, and a decrease in a person’s overall quality of life.
Many people undergo knee replacement surgery to reduce pain and restore mobility to the affected joint, or use painkillers to cope with the pain of osteoarthritis. Some people can achieve minimal improvements with exercise and physiotherapy. But Dr. Chenchen Wang and colleagues at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston thought one exercise might be particularly helpful in these cases. To try out their theory, they recruited 40 people, average age 65, with knee osteoarthritis. Half were randomly chosen to take part in hour-long tai chi classes, twice-weekly for three months. These classes included a half hour of tai chi movements, 10 minutes of breathing techniques and 10 minutes of relaxing and 10 minutes of self-message and review.
While maintaining their usual physical routine, participants were also requested to practice tai chi for at least 20 minutes a day at home. The other 20 participants acted as a control group who attended two hour-long classes on osteoarthritis each week for the three months. In this class they were given information on diet and nutrition, treatments for osteoarthritis and on how to handle stress. While following their regular fitness regimen, they also did full-body stretching exercises and were encouraged to stretch for 20 minutes at home.
Those in the tai chi group had a 75 percent reduction in knee pain at the end of the study. They also showed a 72 percent improvement in their ability to do everyday tasks, such as climbing stairs. The tai chi group also reported less depression and better overall health status. As for the control group, they reported improvements, but they were much less than in the tai chi group. “Tai chi is a mind-body approach that seems to be an applicable treatment for older adults with knee osteoarthritis,” Dr. Wang said. “Our observations show a need to further evaluate the biologic mechanisms and approaches of tai chi to extend its benefits to a larger population.”
Family practitioner, Dr. Paul Lam, and tai chi master who founded the Australian arthritis program, says tai chi is an exercise almost anyone who can walk can do safely. Other experts agree. “Given its low impact and proof that it tends to increase muscle strength and balance and give common pain relief, we think it’s a worthwhile option for arthritis patients,” says Dr. William L. Haskell, deputy director of the Stanford University Center for Research in Disease Prevention in California.