Tai chi — a gentle, flowing form of exercise practiced widely in China — has gained popularity in the United States in recent years, spurred in part by growing evidence for its health benefits. Since the late 1950s, hundreds of studies have suggested that tai chi may benefit people with a wide range of medical conditions, including COPD.
Tai chi combines sequences of slow, flowing upper- and lower-body movements with breath awareness and a variety of thinking skills that include focused attention and imagery. While classic tai chi is done standing, a modified version can be done sitting, so it's highly adaptable and therefore ideal for people with different fitness levels. All of the arm movements, and to some extent the leg movements, can be practiced while sitting in a sturdy chair. For example, you can extend your legs, move them from side to side, or lift them, even when you're sitting.
Studies suggest that tai chi can help people with COPD boost their ability to walk and do other types of exercise, as well as improve their quality of life. The benefits are thought to arise from the combination of movement, breathing, and relaxation.
The movements safely and gradually strengthen the heart and major muscle groups. The deep breathing exercises enhance oxygen uptake, which can ease breathlessness. Finally, the meditative aspect of the practice helps lower stress.
You can likely find a tai chi class at a senior or community center, health club, or hospital. Classes are available at many of the 70-plus academic health centers throughout the United States that have integrative health programs. And many assisted living facilities offer tai chi classes free for their residents.
Hourlong classes typically cost around $15 to $20, and some centers allow you to pay by the week, month, or several months. 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.
For more information on the treatments, therapies, and everyday hints and tips to help you live well with COPD, check out Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.
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