Posted on April 28th, 2012
If you’re not sure about trying something like this with a condition or injury that you have, then ask your doctor or your physiotherapist for their input. It’s always important to check things out first if you are not sure. I’m an ‘expert patient’ and post-graduate researcher but I’m not medically trained. So if you’re not sure, always speak to someone who is trained, first. x
I started learning Yang style Tai Chi when my conditions stopped me from doing my physio’ exercises at the gym. My intention was to keep my body working as much as possible until I could return to my previous level of exercise programme. I intended to continue with the Tai Chi for pleasure even after I improved physically, but I would have focused more on the gym stuff for helping me with my conditions.
It’s been a year and a half and I still have not managed to return to the gym, but I have got hooked on Tai Chi!
And it has done more than just keep my body going. It has helped me with pain control (my original intention), but also with balance, confidence in my own body capability, as well as building up strength in my legs and core. I pay more attention to how I move these days, (so bruises are less frequent!), and the way in which I move at home to step over and around things has changed for the better. I’ve even noticed some Tai Chi foot moves when making a cuppa in the kitchen!
It has also given me something to learn. I’m doing something progressive, which makes me feel much more positive about myself, and about my days, (which are spent relentlessly working around my conditions). Tai Chi is something I look forward to, and it’s great fun working on the improvements and learning more as time goes by.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. There is loads of research out there that has demonstrated some of the health benefits that Tai Chi can facilitate. Just an hour or so scouring various journals resulted in about 40 different research papers, and three quarters of them have been published within the last two years!
And we’re talking ‘proper’ scientific research here. Yep, controlled variables, peer reviewed, the lot. So… blummin’ good stuff, basically!
Bear in mind that research has to be really specific. So the published results can only say exactly what the research looked into, even if the researchers suspect that other age groups or conditions may be helped as well. They’d have to do a whole separate bit of research to scientifically check that out before they could say anything of the sort.
Some conditions share some characteristics, though, which may give you an idea about whether it’s worth trying Tai Chi. For example, I’ve found research showing that Tai Chi helps with pain control in fibromyalgia, lower back pain and arthritis. I have none of these conditions, but I use Tai Chi in the same way to help to control the pain levels of my condition, CRPS. Even though no researcher has looked into this specific combination…. Yet!
Unless you count my own experience, of course? In which case it is a positive outcome from this one-person case-study.
I have yet to attempt to grow the film-worthy wispy beard of the Tai Chi master, but as I’m still a beginner I think I have time. However, as I’m a girl I may have to purchase a Monty Python style hook-over-the-ears fake beard instead. Not sure how I’m going to achieve the matching Sifu eyebrows, though. Perhaps it’s a secret they teach us later on!
I have listed below some conditions that research has, so far, shown Tai Chi to be helpful for, (and the numbers relate to relevant research links to be found at the end of this page)…..
- Chronic Stroke – the researchers concluded that community-based Tai Chi is a safe programme for stroke survivors and that participant satisfaction was high. They suggested that a larger study should be carried out to confirm this. (this research used Yang style Tai Chi)27
- Cardiac rehabilitation – balance and perceived physical health were significantly better for the Tai Chi participants2. (average age of participants was 70, and the study used Wu style Tai Chi)
- Low back pain – reduced pain intensity, improved self-reported disability14.
- Fibromyalgia – very large study (247 participants), improved pain levels1 and quality of life which were still being maintained at the 24 week follow-up)25 (12 weeks of Tai Chi)
- Rheumatoid arthritis – improved pain relief, very large study1; improved lower-limb muscle function, the experience of the physical condition, confidence in moving, balance, as well as reduced pain in exercise and in day-to-day living (12 weeks of Tai Chi)30
- Osteoarthritis – improved pain relief, very large study1
- Knee osteoarthritis in elderly patients – improved overall knee pain and improved maximum knee pain6.
- Lower- limb osteoarthritis – pain reduction and also found that Tai Chi exercise programs have better results than mixed exercise programs11. (metareview of 33 studies)
- Osteopaenia – many improvements including pain levels, energy levels and physical functionality10.
- Parkinsons Disease – small study concluding that Tai Chi can be used as a safe and effective form of rehabilitation for some patients18. (12 weeks of Tai Chi)
- Peripheral neuropathy – improvement of physical performance – improved in up-and-go test (getting out of a chair, walking round an obstacle and returning to sit down), increased distance covered in a 6 minute walk, and improved leg strength performance21. (24 weeks of Tai Chi)
- Physical & cognition in older patients. The authors refer to detrimental effects of health issues impacting negatively on cognition. They report that Tai Chi has been shown to work positively on these issues8.
- Mild cognitive impairment – improvement of the performance of memory complaints in elderly women17. (six months of Tai Chi, small preliminary study)
- Anxiety – reduction12, participants also reported feeling more relaxed and peaceful15.
- Depression in the over 60’s – improved quality of life, memory and cognition, and energy levels)26. (10 weeks of Tai Chi)
- Neuropsychological, emotional and physical functioning after cancer treatment – improvements24. (10 weeks of Tai Chi) (researchers suggest further controlled trails regarding the potential benefits of Tai Chi on neuropsychological functioning)
- Brain injury – reported improvement in mood and self-esteem4. (small preliminary study)
And I bet there’ll be plenty more to add to this list as more research gets published. Especially if studies continue down the ‘cost effective’ route. Perhaps if the financial benefits are shown to be relevant to our health system with regards to more than just falls prevention3 then we might see the availability and encouragement of Tai Chi increase even more.
The last six items in the list demonstrate that Tai Chi is not only positive in working around physical conditions. It has been shown to have a positive impact on us psychologically, as well. Studies have shown that Tai Chi can improve the quality of life of residents in nursing homes19; and also to increase and improve work output in older nurses23. This may sound a bit wafty and inexplicable…
…until you come across the large research study published this year29 that compared conventional physiotherapy with Tai Chi and found that the one significant difference between the two treatments is that Tai Chi promoted self-efficacy, whereas standard physiotherapy did not. This is a very important result for all involved in physiotherapy, let alone the grinning masses who love Tai Chi!
Eleven years earlier, a smaller study20 of low-active but healthy people had shown that Tai Chi enhances self-efficacy and also exercise behaviour. And I’m so glad that the recent larger study has backed this up, and with relevance to our older population, as well. As far as I’m concerned, this study is of major impact because self-efficacy is bound up with our self-esteem, our confidence, our value of ourselves, and it hugely affects whether we stick with a physiotherapy programme or not. It is so important, simply because it affects whether we keep up the physio’ required to effect improvement. It’s to do with motivation, and self confidence. It’s a large part of the key to whether we succeed in our battle with whatever condition or injury we may be working with. This is why I rate this study so highly, for its level of relevance and importance to us all.
The research into the effects of Tai Chi on rheumatoid arthritis used a mixture of methodologies. The research was both in statistical form (quantitative), and participants’ own words, (qualitative). This mixture of methodologies revealed how Tai Chi also had effects other than just the measureable disease/health ones. The authors suggest that this may hint at how Tai Chi can be so successful30. Supporting this, in addition to positive outcomes for specific conditions, research has also found that Tai Chi to have improved the following:
- Sense of well-being1
- Quality of life16, 25
- Sleep quality1, 16
- Immune system, (cellular immune function – anti-virus and anti-infection), in those lacking exercise31
- Anti-oxidant defences in pre- and post menopausal women22
- Balance 1 – improved balance control, both when static and when moving (‘dynamic’)7, 5, 32
- Smoothness of rapid-aiming arm movements in older people32
- Perceived physical health2
- General health10
- Vitality/energy10, 16
- Weekly levels of physical activity16
- Stride width (may help to reduce risk factors for falls)10
- Gait (the way we walk)10
- Decreased the incidence of falls29
- Less fear of falling5
- Decreased heart-rate and blood pressure13
- Increased vagal activity (for reference: the vagus nerve is important for the nervous system and is involved in the balancing out of automatic processes, for example calming processes like heart-rate and blood pressure, whilst stimulating others like digestion and storage of absorbed nutrients)15
- Decreased cholesterol13
- Larger health benefits with community based Tai Chi, than with laboratory based training5.
- And not forgetting, of course, self-efficacy which deserves another mention!29 (associated with higher levels of programme attendance and exercise adherence)20
If there’s one thing that crops up again and again in conversations with my Tai Ch classmates, it’s how good it makes us feel, within ourselves and about ourselves. We feel that we are achieving something and we really enjoy it. It mysteriously adds value, and that can only be a good thing. And if we’re going to look after our health, it is much better for the soul and heart to do it in a way that we enjoy.
I’m not saying, of course, that because I love Tai Chi you should go and learn it too! But I am saying that there are gentle ways to keep your body going, even when you are working around a condition, and that those ways can even be enjoyable. The amazing bonus is that they can even be helpful in a way that standard physiotherapy just can’t address.
You may not fancy Tai Chi. Perhaps you’re thinking of trying out a gentle hatha yoga or pilates class. But whatever you are considering I say ‘go for it’. Go along and try a lesson. Talk to the teacher first about any conditions or injuries you may have. If they are a good and well-trained teacher, they will come and ask you first. Having a good teacher makes a massive difference. Don’t let one bad teacher or uninspiring lesson put you off. Some lessons are more of the ‘going through the motions’ type, than learning true Tai Chi specifics33. Don’t settle for less than you deserve – try a different teacher, or a different kind of class. Try as many different classes as you want to. Maybe pilates didn’t do it for you, but perhaps yoga or Tai Chi would. You don’t know until you try.
Tai Chi involves slow, controlled movements but the body is relaxed, not tense. It often includes breathing exercises from QiGong which help to relax the body. The movements are gentle and graceful. It is slow enough to give the brain time to think about what’s coming next and so there is time to prepare the body to move almost seamlessly. The legs are bent, but only as much as is suitable for each individual. (If you saw the You Tube clips in my ‘Tai Chi Glee’ post, don’t worry – you don’t have to bend your knees that much)!
I have found that learning Tai Chi gets easier as time goes on because once you get the principles in your head it becomes more natural, even when learning a completely new move. I’ve seen a lot of people try a class, say that they loved it but that it was difficult to get their head round, and then never come back. Which is a shame, because I’ve found that it actually gets easier as times goes on, not harder. And not over loads of time, either, after Tai-Chi-ing for just over a year the way my brain and body process new moves has improved enormously because I now have a foundation of experience to work with.
One study9 advised that there are suggestions that the positive outcomes from learning Tai Chi could improve even more depending on the level to which it is mastered. So, in addition to the overwhelming motivation to give something like this a whirl, there’s also the motivation to keep on learning more!
Tai Chi is not solely the realm of the grey-haired or of the super-duper young and fit…it is appropriate for pretty much all ages and abilities. From martial artists expanding their knowledge, to creaky people like me. My teacher has taught people recovering post-stroke, people in wheelchairs, people like me with chronic pain or variable heart-rates…. all sorts.
So if you feel the urge to give it a whirl…go for it! You might be discovering a new beloved hobby.