Tai chi can improve life for people with chronic health conditions

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Last summer, I practiced tai chi with my 83-year old mother at the senior center near her home. The hour-long class helped me realize why this flowing, meditative practice is an ideal exercise for older people with health issues. My mom is doing well, but she has osteoporosis and had a heart valve replacement a few years ago.

Practiced for centuries in China, tai chi has become popular in the United States in recent years, thanks in part to the growing evidence for its many health benefits. Not only does tai chi improve balance and flexibility, it may prevent falls, ease pain, and even help your heart.

Like walking, which can be leisurely or brisk, tai chi is easily adaptable. You can do the gentle movements sitting on a chair or standing up. You can repeat the sequences of movements to gradually strengthen your muscles. Like yoga, tai chi stretches your joints and connective tissues. But you don’t have to get down on the floor — a boon for people with limited mobility. And similar to yoga and meditation, tai chi also encourages deep, slow breathing.

As I wrote in the September Harvard Heart Letter, hundreds of studies dating back to the late 1950s suggest that tai chi offers modest benefits for treating high blood pressure and other heart-related conditions. The latest research, published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine last week, suggests that doing tai chi can help older adults with common, long-term health conditions move about more easily and enhance their quality of life.

Researchers analyzed data from 33 studies involving nearly 1,600 adults. Most were in their 60s or 70s and all had one or more chronic conditions: osteoarthritis, breast cancer, heart failure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a serious lung condition that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

All the studies were randomized and controlled: they compared people who did tai chi with those who either did another type of exercise or were waiting to join a tai chi class. Over all, people who did tai chi showed greater improvements on a six-minute walking test, in muscle strength (measured by bending and stretching the knees), and in quality of life. People with osteoarthritis didn’t reap as much in terms of strength as those with other conditions, but their pain and stiffness improved. And people with COPD who did tai chi noted less breathlessness.

The quality of life improvements may stem from the meditative, mind-calming aspects of tai chi, says Peter Wayne, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi. “Tai chi integrates physical activity, breathing, and a variety of cognitive skills, including imagery and visualization,” says Wayne.

In fact, that’s what I found most helpful about tai chi, which is often called “meditation in motion.” During a class, the teacher guides you through a series of slow-motion postures with evocative descriptions, like “grasping the sparrow’s tail” and “waving hands like clouds.” Instead of mentally scrolling through my to-do list (as I’m prone to during regular meditation), I was able to stay focused yet relaxed. I also noticed the sense of camaraderie among the people in my mom’s class. That’s another reason that doing tai chi classes tends to improve people’s quality of life, says Wayne.

The best way to try tai chi is to take a class at a senior or community center, health club, or hospital. Of the 58 academic health centers throughout the United States that have integrative health programs, many offer tai chi classes. Tai chi is also incorporated into many cardiac rehabilitation programs, including those affiliated with several Harvard teaching hospitals. And many assisted living facilities offer tai chi classes free for their residents.

Classes typically cost around $15. Wear loose, comfortable clothing, and supportive shoes like sneakers. Or you can go barefoot, if you prefer. If you can’t locate a class that’s convenient for you, you can buy a DVD, or search online for a video.

Comments:

  1. JPB

    a “black belt” in Tai Chi? LOL!! Yes, there are martial aspects to the discipline, but no belts.

  2. Joanna Vlassopulos

    Great article to read very encouraging..something very beneficial to know.

  3. Adi R.Cooper

    This is Very Good
    Can YOU show or EMAIL mebsomething exercises FOR osteoarthritis
    Thanks,
    Adi COOPER

  4. Wayne

    Great article. It seems like every week a new study comes out on the benefits of Tai Chi. As a practitioner for 18 years and a teacher of the art for 6 years through a Senior Services Center fall prevention program in my area I don’t recommend learning with a DVD or online video for beginners for several reasons. First a DVD can’t tell you if you are doing it wrong and it can’t answer questions. Also, many students need constant encouragement to practice at home or they don’t practice. Life gets in the way. Many seniors take up Tai Chi as a way to improve balance or help prevent a fall. While Tai Chi doesn’t have any side effects if done correctly, many seniors can exacerbate back problems or hurt their knees without proper instruction. I’ve noticed that many videos do Tai Chi in a very low posture to build up leg strength. But with seniors who may already have knee problems this can hurt them further. An online video may presents Tai Chi in a martial art version and this would not be a good idea for seniors. A DVD or online video can be a great learning aid along with instruction from a knowledgeable trainer. It can be a review for someone who has already learned Tai Chi. Tai Chi isn’t just moving through various postures. It’s all about being aware of your balance and moving it from one foot to the other slowly as you progress through the postures. You are meditating on your balance as you flow through the form. While most students learn the form fairly quick in a matter of weeks or months, I look back on my practice and I think I really didn’t understand Tai Chi for several years even with several excellent teachers. I try to pass on my knowledge of Tai Chi as well as experience. A DVD or video can’t do that effectively.

    • Jennie Anderson

      Thank you for sharing your insight. Rgds, Jennie

    • Scott

      I agree with Wayne that learning Tai Chi from a DVD or online video is not the best choice. I personally tried to do so to save money but was very disappointed. I decided to join a school where I found great personal instruction and commeraderie with other students. After practicing Tai Chi for a few years my physical condition improved so much that I started training in Kung Fu. Now I’m at a black belt level in both disciplines, have lost 20 pounds of fat, and no longer have back problems. Plus, my resting heart rate has dropped approximately 10 beats and my stress levels are much lower. I’m a professional counselor and clinical director at a large community non-profit organization and have been spreading the word about, as well as demonstrating, Tai Chi among my colleagues, staff, and sister organizations. In celebrating World Mental Health Day I’ll be doing another Tai Chi demo. I highly encourage anyone who interested to try Tai Chi at a school or other in-person program. Thanks Harvard Medical for your research and publications on Tai Chi!