Study Finds Tai Chi an "Ideal Choice" for Improving Public Health
Although it originated as a style of Chinese martial art centuries ago, tai chi is now one of the most popular forms of exercise in the world. Performed in slow motion, tai chi combines breathing techniques, meditation and repetitive body movements, many of which follow the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. Among the benefits that come from practicing tai chi, individuals often report that the exercises help to improve circulation, reduce stress, promote balance and flexibility, and enhance one's overall well-being.
In the United States, the vast majority of tai chi studies have examined the effectiveness of the exercises while performed in a laboratory setting. While this type of research allows for precise analysis of certain benefits that can be measured against a control population, most people choose to practice the therapy in a group or community setting. Community-based tai chi programs often produce their own set of benefits, including increased social interaction, cost-effectiveness, and the ability to gain information about general health and wellness, in addition to the myriad physical benefits derived from tai chi itself. However, these benefits are often considered more difficult to quantify.
To determine whether community-based tai chi programs are just as beneficial to individuals as exercises practiced in a clinical setting, researchers in Hong Kong recruited 100 people between the ages of 29 and 72 to participate in a 12-week tai chi class. The results of their study, published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, suggest that tai chi practiced in a community setting provides benefits comparable to those seen in laboratory trials, making it a viable option for improving public health and wellness.
The study was conducted in two phases. In the first phase, a novice group of 51 patients with no formal experience in tai chi was selected to participate in a 12-week program, using the Cheng 119 style of tai chi (described by the researchers as "a beginner's level, with a moderate level of intensity"). Classes were conducted at a residents association office at 7:30 a.m., three times weekly, with each session lasting 90 minutes. Instruction was provided by a qualified tai chi master, with four additional tai chi masters serving as assistants.
Prior to the beginning of the program, and at the program's conclusion, the researchers measured the lung function and physical capacity levels of the novice group. Other factors, such as resting heart rate, blood pressure levels, flexibility and balance were measured at baseline and at six- and 12-week intervals.
In the second phase, a group of 49 "experienced practitioners" (patients who had previously taken the same tai chi class and had continued to practice for at least six months) were invited to the residents association, and underwent the same series of tests and measures used on the novice group.
In the novice group, following the completion of the tai chi program, patients showed increases in postural stability and improvements in flexibility, based on flexion tests of the spine and shoulders. Similarly, patients also scored higher on "reach" tests at six weeks and 12 weeks compared to baseline. In addition, resting systolic and diastolic blood pressure rates decreased an average of 1.86 points and 0.51 points per patient, respectively, from baseline to the end of the study.
In the experienced group, patients demonstrated lower resting heart rates at baseline (71.18 beats per minute) than those in the novice group (74.7 beats per minute), lending credence to previous research that suggests that people who practice tai chi regularly are generally better conditioned aerobically than those who do not. Subjects in the experienced group also showed increases in hand grip strength and flexibility compared to novice-group patients.
Perhaps most significantly, participation in the tai chi class appeared to produce benefits beyond those obtained just by practicing the exercises. In a satisfaction survey completed by 43 participants at the program's conclusion, 86 percent said that their involvement in the tai chi class made them more aware of their own health status and lifestyle. As a result, at the end of the program, 67 percent of the participants reported exercising more than they had at the start of the program; 9 percent said they had changed their diet to eat more health foods; 12 percent reported losing weight; and 23 percent stated that they were able to relax more. In addition, more than one-third of the participants who completed the survey noted that their family members had observed some change in their health and well-being, and 95 percent of the participants said they would join a more advanced tai chi class if it were offered.
Tai Chi and Public Health
Because tai chi can be practiced by people of all ages in almost any type of setting, and requires little to no equipment for participation, it is one of the most cost-effective forms of exercise in existence. The researchers noted this in their conclusion, and suggested that tai chi could be "an ideal choice for public health initiatives globally."
Unlike many forms of exercise, tai chi can be practiced at many levels of varying intensity. As a result, researchers have been unable to determine which styles of tai chi provide optimal health benefits. However, the authors cited the Cheng 119 style of tai chi as one that "provided exercise responses consistent with a long-term aerobic exercise program" and that generated a positive response rate from a significant number of participants.
Based on the results of the physical tests performed on the novice and experienced groups, along with the responses to the satisfaction survey, the authors recommended that a community-based tai chi program "should be considered" as a method of improving public health. As they noted in the conclusion to the study:
"Tai chi learned in a community-based program ... provides many of the same physiologic benefits reported by researchers doing controlled, laboratory-based, scientific studies. Despite the variability of intensity inherent in the complex, coordinated movements of tai chi and the less tightly controlled practice schedule, the results of our community-based study were comparable to reports from the laboratory. We conclude that tai chi is feasible and potentially economical as a public health initiative."
- Jones AY, Dean E, Scudds R. Effectiveness of a community-based tai chi program and implications for public health initiatives. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation April 2005;86:619-25.
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