by Linda Richards, RD, MS
Sometimes called “meditation in motion” due to its gentle movements, tai chi is growing in popularity. In fact, the last national survey that asked about alternative health practices showed that nearly 2.5 million Americans have practiced tai chi. You may have seen a small group performing it in a park, or you’ve likely seen ads for classes in your community. This article explains why tai chi is often encouraged for people with arthritis and related conditions — and suggests how you can best locate a class appropriate for you.
Tai chi, or tai chi chuan, is a system of postures and movements performed in a slow manner, with each posture flowing into the next, without a pause. The moves are coordinated with deep breathing, requiring a level of concentration that helps people be “in the moment.” People of all ages who practice tai chi report a feeling of relaxation and calm.
The history of tai chi is complex, with many stories and myths surrounding its past. Though probably fictional, the most popular tai chi origin story attributes the creation of tai chi to a Taoist monk named Zhang Sanfeng. Legend has it that Zhang Sanfeng came upon a fight between a bird and a snake and studied their movements closely. Inspired by what he saw, Zhang Sanfeng sought a martial art that used softness and internal power to overcome force. Since then, many styles and variations of tai chi have been developed.
Consumer Reports has called tai chi the “ultimate low-impact exercise” that can be done by anyone who can walk. One study showed it was equivalent to brisk walking in its effects on heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones. Those are pretty good stats for what is usually a slow-moving exercise!
Dr. Robert Whipple, a physical therapist in New York who has researched tai chi and balance, believes tai chi is a good exercise choice because it keeps a person stable: It uses a widened stance to maximize a person’s standing base, and it keeps the head and torso as vertical as possible. There is minimal leaning in tai chi, with many instructors telling students to hold their heads as if suspended from above.
An NIH-sponsored review of numerous studies involving tai chi in people with arthritis concluded that tai chi can be safely recommended to people with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia. The published review also said that tai chi may reduce pain and improve physical and psychological health and well-being. Individual studies involving people with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis have shown that tai chi can strengthen muscles; increase knee endurance and bone mineral density; reduce the risk of falling; and improve cardiovascular function through lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and stress. Studies in fibromyalgia show improvements in quality of life, sleeping, and symptom management.
Of course, although tai chi is considered safe for almost anyone, it’s best to talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program to get suggestions for your particular symptoms.
Today you can learn many different styles of tai chi in community centers, health clubs, senior centers, and YMCA/YWCAs. Many tai chi styles emphasize its health effects, although some stress competition or self-defense and may involve strikes or kicks. For example, the Chen style has a martial arts focus and includes fast punches, jumps, and kicks. It’s considered the least suited for people with arthritis. On the other side of the spectrum is the Sun style, which uses smaller movements and stances that are held for shorter times. The Wu, Wu (Hao), and Yang are other popular styles, with a variety of versions.
One of the best options for learning tai chi is to use a style that was designed specifically for people with arthritis. Through the Arthritis Foundation, Australian family physician Paul Lam developed a gentler form of the Sun style, which he now teaches throughout the world. After developing arthritis as a teenager in China, Lam found tai chi strengthened his muscles and improved his cardiovascular fitness. Lam also believes that tai chi increases his qi (internal energy, usually pronounced chi), according to traditional Chinese beliefs.
Lam prefers the Sun style because its stances involve less knee bending and less chance for injury. For his version, Tai Chi for Arthritis, Lam worked with rheumatologists, physical therapists, and tai chi experts to remove higher-risk movements. His version also uses forward and backward movements, which he says offers mobility that provides people with arthritis more flexibility and improved muscle strength.
The Arthritis Foundation sponsors more than 450 Tai Chi for Arthritis classes throughout the United States, with many new ones added each year. To see if there is one near you, call your local Arthritis Foundation office, or go online to find classes in your area. Just click Tai Chi under the heading Community Programs for Better Living at www.arthritis.org to go to the Tai Chi page and see how you can get involved. If you want to contact your local office but don’t know how, you can call the national Arthritis Foundation office at (800) 283-7800.
Last Reviewed on December 2, 2013
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