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Tai chi can benefit mind & body

Thomas Leuthard

Sometimes, a martial art can be peaceful.

Tai chi is a mind and body exercise rooted in a number of Asian traditions, including martial arts, which combines slow intentional movements, breathing and a number of important mental skills.

This week on Take Care, Dr. Peter Wayne joined the program to share the health benefits of tai chi, the best way to reap those advantages and how they can also provide a financial assistance.

Wayne is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School as well as the director of research for the Boston-based Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. He also authored "The Harvard Medical School’s Guide to Tai Chi."

The goalsof the tranquil self-defense method are to strengthen, relax and integrate the body and mind. These objectives are thus believed to improve a person’s health, personal awareness and development.

Wayne uses the analogy of learning to drive when explaining the speed of tai chi. Not everyone learns to drive at full speed. It can take time to fit all the pieces together. That can mean starting slow.

The pace of tai chi allows those who practice the martial art to truly become aware of their body, how all its pieces connect and their emotions. The hope is this will allow people to slow stressful situations down and not simply react.

Shared health benefits

There is not just one style of tai chi. Like many therapeutics, there are many with unique aspects which make them distinct, according to Wayne.

That being said, Wayne says the different types of tai chi have more commonalities than differences. They share fundamentals such as postural situations, breathing and an awareness of how each part of the body is connected. The different schools can also share many of the same health benefits.

Tai chi does not target a particular muscle, joint or system in the body. It is full body exercise focused on improving physical, mental and emotional health.

Dr. Chenchen Wang of the Tufts School of Medicine recently completed a study which shows tai chi can be helpful with symptom and pain management in osteoarthritis of the knee and be equally as good as physical therapy. Other pain studies have shown benefits with fibromyalgia as well as a smaller sample size of promising results about the benefits for back and neck pain.

Wayne says tai chi’s slow movements allow people to become more aware of their bodies, thus they are less likely to add more injury to areas recovering from injury of weakness. Strength can be built up gradually with these exercises.

An added bonus for baby boomers

The baby boomer generation, which is one of the largest in American history, is growing old. According to Wayne, about one out of every three people over 65 take a fall each year. This is an issue with balance in old age, which tai chi can help combat.

Many large randomized trials have shown results where the martial art has shown a 25 to 35 percent reduction in the rate of falls among older adults. Balance is an area where strong evidence exists of the positive effects of tai chi.

Wayne pointed out the benefits to these adults and their families go beyond their health. The doctor suggested the impact could help families, as well as society as a whole, financially.