Legend has it that tai chi, a Chinese martial art, was invented hundreds of
years ago by a Taoist priest named Chang San-Feng after he happened to see a
crane fighting with a snake. He noticed how each used the same movements to
attack as well as defend -- recoiling to avoid the other's deadly strike, then
fluidly transforming that energy into a counter-strike.
In the U.S. today, far removed from the misty mountains of medieval China,
people are practicing tai chi more for their health than for fighting. The
graceful, dance-like movements are helping people improve their mobility and
their balance -- especially important for people with arthritis.
"What you're trying to do is establish a sense of balance," says
Bernard Rubin, chief of rheumatology at the University of Texas Health Sciences
Center. That's helpful for two reasons: First, you are less likely to have a
nasty fall if your sense of balance is keen. Second, it improves your posture.
Being more aware of how your body is balanced helps get you out of bad habits,
like slouching, he says.
Tai chi combines meditation with slow, circular motions. The movements are
practiced with your knees and hip joints slightly bent, as if you were starting
to sit down on an invisible chair. This stance strengthens leg muscles that
help support and protect your joints. The circular movements keep your joints
in motion, which relieves stiffness.
Scientific evidence on the benefits of tai chi is piling up. One study
presented at the American College of Rheumatology meeting in November 2001
showed that older people with arthritis may have less pain and less trouble
with daily activities if they practice tai chi. Researchers at Soonchunhyang
University in Korea looked at people with arthritis who took a 12-week tai chi
course. At the end of the course, they had stronger abdominal muscles and
better balance than they had before they took the course.
Another study done by researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute found
that 12 weeks of tai chi helped older people with arthritis in the legs get
around better, and they had less pain. These results were published in the
Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2000.
You don't need any special equipment to practice tai chi. You can do these
gentle exercises in your home or in the park, wherever you are comfortable. But
you probably will need to take a class to learn the movements. To find a class
near you, call your local Arthritis Foundation office, or try your town's
recreation department or seniors' center.