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Ancient Exercises Keep People With Arthritis Moving

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Jan. 4, 2001 -- The people practicing t'ai chi appear as if in a dream, their actions are so precise and in such slow motion. The movements and philosophy have been touted in China for more than 1,000 years as a way to peace and health. Now medical experts are scientifically demonstrating that it may provide major benefits for some people who suffer from diseases like arthritis.

The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society recently published a study showing that a group of 18 osteoarthritis patients felt better about the state of their health and ability to manage their symptoms after participating in 12 weeks of t'ai chi training.

The study's lead author, Catherine Hartman, MS, of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, says that the ancient Chinese exercises didn't significantly change how well the participants' hips and knees worked. However, she says that participants did report being better able to bend, keep their balance, and do general household tasks.

Hartman tells WebMD she hypothesized that the dancelike style of t'ai chi might be an appropriate way for older, arthritic patients to exercise. The average age of those in the study was 68.

The training included two 1-hour classes each week for 12 weeks for those learning t'ai chi. A control group, whose members resembled the t'ai chi group in age, gender, race, weight, and height, continued with their normal day-to-day activities. They did not show the improvement exhibited by the individuals learning the exercises. At the end of the study, those who participated in the t'ai chi exercises reported improvements in their arthritis symptoms, their level of tension, and their satisfaction with general health status.

"Recently, physicians have been recommending physical activity for people with arthritis. But they're finding that older adults just are not doing the types of activities being recommended," Hartman says. "I thought that the slower, less intense mind/body exercise might be attractive to them."

A Beijing t'ai chi master agreed to conduct the classes and even adapted the movements for one man who was dependent on a walker: The elderly man had access to parallel bars like those used in gymnastic routines so that he could grab them if he thought he was going to fall over.

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