Graceful Movements of Tai Chi Help Body and Soul

Dec. 6, 1999 (Atlanta) -- The ancient Chinese exercise tradition of tai chi -- with its slow, graceful, fluid movements -- can help improve mild balance problems in people young and old, reducing risk of falls, says a study published in the current Archives of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery. And the very nature of tai chi -- "meditation in motion" -- brings multiple added benefits in staying limber and stress-free as we age, says one tai chi grand master.

"Tai chi involves making very slow hand and arm movements, controlling what you're doing," Timothy Hain, MD, associate professor of neurology and otolaryngology at Northwestern University Medical School, tells WebMD. It is especially helpful in reducing falls among elderly people, says Hain, because "people become more aware of their movements, they tend to slow down."

Hain, a "dizziness expert," conducted the study to explore treatment alternatives for people with inner ear disorders.

The study involved 22 men and women -- ranging in age from 20 to over 75 -- with mild balance problems. "We didn't think that anyone with severe balance disorder could even do tai chi," says Hain. Each participated in eight weekly one-hour tai chi sessions held over a two-month period.

Overall, people in every age group improved by 10% -- even when measured by the most difficult test, the moving platform. "You stand on a platform very similar to a teeter totter," says Hain. "You lean forward, and it goes forward; you lean backward, it goes backward. It's a tough little test." A harness and handrail keep falls from happening. "Nevertheless, it is somewhat of a challenge to stay upright."

"Younger people had an easier time adapting to the movements, as you might expect," says Hain. "You might think it might be harder for older people, but that did not seem to be the case. Older people also improved significantly."

"If you look at tai chi and what's going on, it's really not surprising that it works," Hain tells WebMD. "It offers so many different ways to improve balance. There are movements that involve strengthening legs. It is also a controlled way to explore your center of gravity, to explore your limits. You can figure out just by practicing over and over again how to move your center of gravity, your center of mass. You figure out where you're getting unstable and where you are not. You begin to get things mapped out in your head ... and say, 'Well, I shouldn't do this, shouldn't do that.' You get more confident, more precise in your reactions to destabilization situations. You know what you can do and what you can't do."

Because tai chi involves great concentration, it can help reduce stress, provide greater relaxation, and lower blood pressure, adds Tingsen Xu, PhD, a tai chi grand master who began practicing tai chi in his native China at age 15. Today, at age 70, he is an associate professor in Emory University Medical School's department of rehabilitation.

"I call it meditation in motion," Xu tells WebMD. "You erase everything from your mind, concentrate on the movement, it is very much a mind-body connection ... making circular movements, moving smoothing, gently. Life today is very stressful; people have job problems, relationship problems. Fifteen to 20 minutes of tai chi every day can reduce that stress and lower blood pressure especially."

Xu is currently working with the Arthritis Foundation, providing education on the benefits of tai chi in preventing arthritis. "Because you move the whole body, the wrist, the elbow, the knee, because all the joints are moved, tai chi keeps the joints lubricated. It is a total body exercise. It is a smooth and relaxed form of exercise, very soft, like a continuous dance," says Xu.

During the past 10 years, Xu has worked with Emory School of Medicine professor Steven L. Wolf, PhD, in studying tai chi and elderly people. In a study involving 200 people aged 70 and older, one group took 15 weekly tai chi sessions and 15-minute twice-daily practice sessions in between; another group took balance training classes using a computer-operated balance platform that helped them learn to control their sway under increasingly difficult conditions. Wolf found improvements in certain key areas, most notably in reducing the rate of falling, for the tai chi group.

"Tai chi is a low-technological, inexpensive group activity," says Wolf. "Our data suggest that tai chi can influence older individuals' functioning and well-being significantly and provide some appreciation for why this exercise form has been practiced by older Chinese for more than three centuries."

Vital Information:

  • Tai chi is an ancient Chinese exercise tradition that involves making slow, controlled movements.
  • Practicing tai chi can improve mild balance problems in people of all ages and can reduce the risk of falls.
  • Other health benefits of tai chi include reduced stress, greater relaxation, and lower blood pressure.