Tag Archives: wellness

5 Reasons Tai Chi is the Most Accessible Form of Exercise

Photo courtesy of Gold Coast Tai Chi Academy

Tai Chi – or taiji ch’uan – is a popular form of exercise well recognised for its health benefits. One of the great things about Tai Chi is that it is readily accessible to everyone. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how fit you are, how much time you have, or whether you have any previous experience in sports, martial arts, or fitness: if you can breathe, you can do Tai Chi.

Here are five great reasons why Tai Chi is the most accessible form of exercise for everyone.

Tai Chi is appropriate for all ages.

You are never too young or too old to practice Tai Chi. Due to its low-impact nature, This is an important consideration when choosing exercise for both the pre-adult and the older adult. Excess forces on the body can be counter-productive for both these age groups. In the pre-adult, the developing musculoskeletal system generally responds well to the forces that various exercises place on it. However, excessive forces can alter or damage critical components – such as growth plates – which can lead to developmental problems. In the older adult, many tissues simply will not take the strain of excessive force, which ultimately leads to injury. Tai Chi movements improve strength and balance without putting a lot of strain or force through the body.

Tai Chi is suitable for all fitness levels.

Tai Chi has no prerequisite level of strength, balance, or cardiovascular fitness level in order to start practicing it. In fact, you don’t even need to be able to stand or walk in order to practice Tai Chi. However, if you have already achieved a moderate or even high level of athleticism, Tai Chi will still offer challenges to you that will benefit your existing health and fitness. The two key reasons for this are Tai Chi’s progressive nature – that is, starting with very basic movements and concepts, and advancing over time to whatever end your mind and body can achieve; and it’s adaptability – a knowledgable Tai Chi instructor will be able to recognise a person’s strengths and limitations, and adapt their training accordingly so they can participate and advance at their own pace.

Tai Chi is gender neutral.

While all forms of exercise are (or should be) equally accessible to women and men, many are developed for, targeted towards, or tend to attract, one gender in greater numbers than the other. Tai Chi is one form of exercise that is truly gender neutral. While some may stereotype the ‘soft’ nature of Tai Chi to be  more suited to females, or its martial aspects to be more appropriate for males, the very nature of Tai Chi is to strike a balance between feminine and masculine aspects. A good Tai Chi class will make women and men feel equally at ease practicing their Tai Chi with each other.

Photo courtesy of Gold Coast Tai Chi Academy

Tai Chi requires no special clothing or equipment.

Whatever you are wearing right now, you are dressed for Tai Chi. Wherever you are, you can do Tai Chi. In addition, many of Tai Chi’s forms are practiced ’empty-handed’, meaning there is no need for special equipment. Ideally you will be wearing loose, comfortable clothing, and have enough space to be able to move through the form you are doing, but neither of those are essential to being able to practice Tai Chi. You can do literally do Tai Chi anywhere. They even do Tai Chi in space!

Tai Chi is easy to learn.

Tai Chi is something that anyone, of any background or ability, can jump straight into. Quality instructors introduce new people to Tai Chi in such a way that they have something they can go home and practice right after their first lesson. It is often said of Tai Chi that it is easy to learn, difficult to master, and with good reason. Yet I’ve seen so many people who are introduced to Tai Chi so pleasantly surprised that they can walk in to a class and just join in right from the start. It’s one of the few forms of exercising that, for the beginner, holds no intimidation.

Tai Chi is easily one of, if not the, most accessible forms of exercise available to everyone. Why not give it a try for yourself?

Knowing When to Do Nothing

art_628465There is a concept in Taoism known as Wu Wei – literally ‘no action’, and often interpreted as ‘do nothing’. It goes hand-in-hand with another concept, Wu Bu Wei – ‘not no action’, or ‘do everything’ [1.] Those who study Taoist philosophy seek to achieve harmony in their lives by doing nothing and doing everything. The idea of doing everything is one that’s probably familiar to all of us: from the moment we wake up we attend to the tasks, chores, and activities of our day right up to the point we close our eyes to sleep again. Doing nothing, however, is a stranger concept. It does not mean being slothful, lazy, or apathetic. Instead, it is about recognising the times when there is nothing you can, or should do – that the right course of action is to not act.

It is a challenging concept to get one’s head around, so let me try to illustrate with an example. Think about the last time you had an argument with someone. It may have been over something of significance to one or both of you, or it may have been – in hindsight – over nothing. If you go back and think about it, you can probably see that it all started from something that was said or done that induced an emotional response in one of you. That response got expressed, which led to an emotional response in the other person, and back and forth it went. Like many arguments it probably heated up as it continued on, perhaps it even got out control and one or both of you were yelling at the other. Chances are at least one of you got their feelings hurt. (If so, hopefully you’ve resolved that by the time you’re reading this!)

Think of that argument as a timeline, like a scene from a movie. You can probably see how the argument started from nothing, and then developed into a full-blown argument. You can probably also see that it took two people to have that argument. Even if it was just one person berating the other, it still took the interaction of both for the argument to happen. Now imagine you can edit that scene. You can move along that timeline and pick a point and edit what happened at that moment. What might have happened if, at some point in the timeline, one of you had stopped arguing? It may have been as simple as saying, “stop, I don’t want to argue anymore”, or perhaps it needed one of you to walk away. If one of you had simply stopped, could there even have been an argument? And if there was no argument, could the problem have been solved faster, easier, or better?

This is where doing nothing becomes important. Using this example, you can think of the argument as doing everything. In fact, you probably are doing everything while arguing – yelling, shouting, trying to put forward, or impose, or defend, your view, and getting emotional. You’re trying to ‘win’, and you will do everything to ‘win’ – and sometimes, ‘winning’ leads to some very undesirable outcomes. If you’ve ever ‘won’ an argument but didn’t feel better for it, you’ll understand what I mean.

To not argue, or cease arguing, is to do nothing. It does not mean turning your back and walking away (though in some instances that might be what it takes). Rather, it is about recognising that continued action is not going to make the situation any better, nor achieve the outcome you really want. In that case it is better to cease your actions – to do nothing – and in doing so, avoid creating a new problem through arguing. As my Tai Chi master says, “you can’t resolve a problem while ever someone is trying to fight you. It is only when they stop fighting you can sit and have tea and work out what the problem is.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? Of course it’s easy to say, yet much more difficult to put into practice. I’m going through a process now which, for the moment, is out of my control, and all I can do is nothing. And yet, for my life to go forward in the way I want it to, this process must happen, and quickly. I have people who need me and who are relying on me to get this done. I have opportunities that are dependent on this happening. And for my own well-being, I need this resolved. The fact that it is taking time is very oppressive and hard to deal with – it’s causing unnecessary strain on me and those I love. I feel responsible and I feel I need to do something to change it – I am trying to do everything, because I’m afraid if I don’t I will lose what it is I’m striving for. Yet the reality is that there is simply no more I can do until it is put back into my hands. I need to do nothing. I know this, and I know that in doing nothing I will be better off, but knowing and doing are often different things, aren’t they? So I am trying to do nothing, however I will be the first to admit it’s not easy.

We can all reflect on our lives and find instances where it seemed that no matter what we did, not matter how hard we tried, no matter how much effort we put into something, we didn’t get to where we wanted to be. We often think that if we stop, everything stops; that inactivity is somehow detrimental to achieving. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is like sailing: you can hoist your sails and work your lines and rigging all you want, however if you’re sailing against the wind, you won’t get very far. But if you stop, and just let the wind fill your sails, you’ll find it takes you to where you need to be.

The trick is not to just do nothing, but to know when to do nothing. And as the Taoists say, in doing nothing, leave nothing undone.

  1. Zhao, Qiguang. (2010). Do nothing and do everything: an illustrated new Taosim. Minnesota: Paragon House

Why Australian Health Insurers Should Cover Tai Chi

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Photo courtesy Gold Coast Tai Chi Academy

Regular readers will be well aware of my advocacy of Tai Chi as a means of maintaining optimal health for the lifespan. (For those who are new, click on the Tai Chi tag to read past articles about the benefits of Tai Chi). There are few forms of exercise that can boast the wide range of physical and mental health benefits, whilst being accessible to people of all ages and abilities, as Tai Chi does.

Health insurers around the world have increasingly recognised the benefits of enabling their members to engage in activities designed to promote healthy lifestyles, and thereby maximise health and well-being. The rationale is simple: engaging in preventative health practices minimises the risks of developing more serious, complicated, and/or debilitating conditions, and therefore reduces both the incidence and level (not to mention the expense) of future medical care required. For example, it is far better from an insurers point of view to support a member to engage in a weight management program, gym membership, and nicotine replacement therapy, than it is to support them through coronary artery bypass surgery and the follow-up care afterwards.

As a result, most, if not all, health insurers now offer some form of support for members to engage in activities designed to maintain or improve their health. The types of activities vary between insurers: in Australia, common activities covered include gym and personal training, yoga, Pilates, and weight management programs. Yet despite its known benefits to health, Tai Chi is not currently covered by any major Australian health insurer. Why?

It’s a good question. Considering that health insurers will, for the most part, only cover treatments or activities that are supported by clinical evidence to be effective in maintaining or improving health, Tai Chi is possibly one of the better examples of evidence-based interventions for good health. A good example of this can be found in a review published in the American Journal of Health Promotion (1.). In this article, Jahnke and colleagues examined the outcomes of randomised controlled trials investigating the outcomes of both Tai Chi and Qigong exercises, and found evidence of positive outcomes for numerous health factors, including bone health, cardiopulmonary health, physical function, falls prevention, immunity, psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression and self-efficacy, and general quality of life. This is by no means an exhaustive list: research since publication continues to identify more health conditions for which Tai Chi can be beneficial. In the face of such evidence, and considering that many insurers cover a range of complimentary or alternative health practices whose evidence based is equal to or less than that of Tai Chi, it seems odd that Tai Chi would not be covered alongside options such as yoga and Pilates.

It becomes even more confusing when you consider that Tai Chi has previously been covered by at least one insurer in Australia. In 2010 the Tai Chi Association of Australia (TCAA) reported that MBF (which has since merged and is now known as Bupa) had recognised Tai Chi for inclusion in its Lifestyle Bonus option, and as much as 70% of class fees could be covered under certain conditions. At the time of writing however, Tai Chi does not appear to be covered under Bupa’s Living Well programs, whereas other forms of exercise such as yoga and Pilates are, and the reasons for this remain unknown.

Another point of consideration is the fact that Tai Chi is gaining recognition and support from the broader health and medical industry for its health benefits. An increasing number of doctors, physiotherapists, exercise physiologists and other health professionals are recommending Tai Chi as a part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. A number of hospitals and health services either conduct, or are connected to, Tai Chi classes, and promote this to their patients and the broader community. For example, the South West Hospital and Health Service in rural south-west Queensland offers free Tai Chi classes to the general public. This is similar to programs offered by local councils, such as the Gold Coast City Council’s Active and Health Program which includes Tai Chi amongst its variety of healthy activities. In addition, the benefits of Tai Chi have been formally recognised and endorsed by a number of peak representative bodies, including Arthritis Australia, Diabetes Australia and Osteoporosis Australia.

In the light of such evidence, recognition and support, it seems to only make sense that health insurers should be including Tai Chi alongside other already recognised activities such as yoga and Pilates. Indeed, health insurers in other countries, for example the United States, have already recognised the benefits of including Tai Chi in their own benefits packages. Surely the inclusion of Tai Chi within a healthy lifestyle package can only serve to benefit health insurer’s members, and in doing so, benefit the insurers themselves.

Do you practice Tai Chi? Do you have private health insurance? Do you think health insurance should cover Tai Chi, as it does other activities such as yoga and Pilates? Please share your comments below.

References

1. Jahnke, R., et al. (2010). A comprehensive review of health benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi. American Journal of Health Promotion, 24(6): e1-e25.

3 of Tai Chi’s Lesser Known Health Benefits

Tai Chi

Reproduced with permission from Gold Coast Tai Chi Academy

Tai Chi (T’ai Chi Ch’uan) is well-known and widely practiced for its health benefits. It’s particularly regarded for its ability to improve balance, range of motion, and lower limb strength, and has been highly researched to establish its effectiveness as a form of exercise for the elderly. In fact, there has been a great deal of research conducted on Tai Chi and Qigong exercises, and both the scientific evidence and the range of health conditions Tai Chi can prove beneficial for is constantly growing.

As a physiotherapist who practices and has been involved in teaching Tai Chi, I keep an eye on the evidence-based research coming out about Tai Chi and its benefits to people, so I can use this to advocate for Tai Chi as a form of therapeutic exercise. What has been interesting is seeing the breadth of research that is being undertaken, and the health conditions that Tai Chi is being shown to produce positive outcomes in beyond the classic falls prevention, various forms of arthritis, and age-related deconditioning. Conditions that I don’t believe most people would normally associate Tai Chi as being able to influence, much less produce positive outcomes. I’d like to illustrate this by bringing three such conditions to your attention, which you may not have been aware of.

Tai Chi and Breast Cancer

g32025800000000000058a37129c5f09d9942b164d878e1e23852dd1738This has been of particular interest to me having had someone I care about recently undertake their own battle with breast cancer, as well as a number of past patients. Over the last several years researchers have been examining the effectiveness of Tai Chi as an intervention to prevent or improve secondary health conditions experienced by breast cancer survivors.

For example, a recent study by Galantino and colleagues (1.) has shown the feasibility of Tai Chi in improving the well-being of postmenopausal breast cancer survivors who have developed arthralgias (joint pain) as a side effect of being prescribed aromatase inhibitors (eg: Aromasin, Arimidex and Femara) to reduce estrogen production. Their study demonstrated statistically significant improvements amongst their test subjects for anxiety, depression, emotional well-being and fatigue, as well as the Sit-and-Reach test, and near statistical significance for pain severity, physical well-being, the Berg Balance Scale and Timed-Up-and-Go Test. This is important because, as the authors state, there are very few interventions that have been developed to counteract the side effects associated with this form of post-breast cancer therapy, and consequently many breast cancer survivors stop using their medication. If Tai Chi can limit the negative side effects of this type of therapy, not only can it improve people’s physical and emotional well-being, it can potentially increase adherence to medication regimes, and thereby reduce the risk of these survivors developing future complications.

The benefits Tai Chi can have on post-cancer symptoms experienced by many breast cancer survivors have also been demonstrated by other researchers. Huang and colleagues (2.) found that breast cancer survivors who engaged in physical activities like Tai Chi and Qigong demonstrated a proportional decrease in cancer-related fatigue compared to those who did not, while Sprod and colleagues (3.) demonstrated changes in biomarkers including insulin, glucose, and cortisol levels which correlated with improvements in health-related quality of life, physical functioning, social functioning and general mental health. Overall, the evidence is growing that breast cancer survivors – particularly those who are post-menopausal – would gain significant benefit from regular Tai Chi practice.

Tai Chi and Depression

Depression is an all-too-common, and in many ways still poorly managed, mental health condition in many societies, and one I encounter frequently amongst patients, particularly those suffering from chronic pain. While it is difficult to locate studies that have solely examined the relationship Tai Chi can have on depression, many studies exist where depression has been one of the variables measured as part of using Tai Chi as a form of therapeutic intervention.

One chronic pain condition that has been well-researched in terms of the effects of Tai Chi is fibromyalgia. An example of this is the research from Wang and colleagues (4.), who measured a number of physical, mental and emotional well-being indicators, including depression, amongst their participants who were engaged twelve weeks of Tai Chi training. Not only did they demonstrate improvements in measures of depression at the end of the twelve weeks of training, but these improvements persisted 12 weeks after the cessation of the training. Similar improvements in mental health measures, including depression, were reported the studies described for breast cancer suffers above.

Results such as these have led researchers and clinicians to call on health professionals to support patients wanting to explore Tai Chi as a form of complimentary therapy to treat issues such as depression. In their editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine, Yeh and colleagues (5.) called on physicians to ‘prescribe’ Tai Chi for patients with fibromyalgia, while psychotherapist Mary Ann La Torre (6.) advocates the use of body movement – in particular, Tai Chi, as a means of creating change and enhancing healing in psychotherapeutic treatment.

On a personal level, not only am I aware of the impact Tai Chi has on my own mental health, I have had patients with a variety of conditions where depression has been a component (for example, chronic pain, cancer, and HIV-positive status) who have all anecdotally reported improvements in their mental health and well-being having commenced Tai Chi training. It would be interesting to see future research specifically investigating the effects of Tai Chi on individual mental health conditions, such as depression, as these results would likely be transferable across a wide range of health conditions where depression is a factor.

Tai Chi and Diabetes

Another condition of close personal interest to me, not only because of its disproportionately high incidence amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples, but also because several people dear to me have either Type I or Type II diabetes. It is well-known that exercise is beneficial for the management of both types of diabetes, so it would be reasonable to expect that Tai Chi would produce similar benefits. However, what is interesting in the research being undertaken is that Tai Chi is not only beneficial for the secondary conditions associated with diabetes, for example, impaired mobility due to peripheral vascular complications (7.), it also has a direct effect on cellular physiology. For example, several studies have demonstrated that Tai Chi practice can increase insulin sensitivity and thereby reduce A1C levels (a better indicator of blood glucose levels over time, as opposed to the immediate result from a blood glucose monitor) (8.), and increase the levels and enhance the activity of regulatory T-cell levels (9.) which improves immune system functioning.

This is critical for those with diabetes, as being able to effect changes at the cellular level means better management of the primary complications associated with diabetes, which can then result in reduced risk of developing, or progression of, secondary complications, such as peripheral vascular disease and neuropathies.

IMG_9858These are only three examples of the wide range of health conditions that Tai Chi is proving itself to be able to make positive changes to. As quality of studies improve and researchers start to identify the specific ways in which Tai Chi can make changes to our health, it is my hope that we will see Tai Chi become a ‘treatment of choice’ in both managing and preventing ill-health.

Do you do Tai Chi? What ways has Tai Chi improved your health and well-being? Please feel free to share your answers in the comments section below.


 

References

1. Galantino, M. L., et al. (2013). Tai Chi for well-being of breast cancer survivors with aromatase inhibitor-associated arthralgias: a feasibility study. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 19(6): 38-44.

2. Huang, X., et al. (2010). Factors associated with cancer related fatigue in breast cancer patients undergoing endocrine therapy in an urban setting: a cross-sectional study. BMC Cancer, 10: 453-459

3. Sprod, L. K., et al. (2012). Health related quality of life and biomarkers in breast cancer survivors participating in tai chi chuan. Journal of Cancer Survivorship: Research and Practice, 6(2): 146-154.

4. Wang, C., et al. (2010). A randomized trial of tai chi for fibromyalgia. The New England Journal of Medicine, 363(8): 743-754.

5. Yeh, G. Y., et al. (2010). Prescribing tai chi for fibromyalgia – are we there yet? The New England Journal of Medicine, 363(8): 783-784.

6. La Torre, M. A. (2008). The role of body movement in psychotherapy. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 44(2): 127-130.

7. Orr, R., et al. (2006). Mobility impairment in Type 2 diabetes: association of muscle power and effect of tai chi intervention. Diabetes Care, 29(9): 2120-2122.

8. Bronas, U. G., et al. (2009). Alternative forms of exercise training as complementary therapy in the prevention and management of Type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Spectrum, 22(4): 220-225.

9. Yeh, S., et. al. (2007). Tai chi chuan exercise decreases A1C levels along with increase of regulatory T-cells and decrease in cytotoxic T-cell population in Type 2 diabetic patients. Diabetes Care, 30(3): 716-718.