We've written before about the benefits of Tai Chi for your brain fitness and your immune system. Now a new study shows some striking effects of a year-long Tai Chi program at dramatically reducing cardiovascular disease risk factors.
The new paper published by Chin Lang et al. in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine details the evaluation of 53 patients with clinically problematic high cholesterol or triglycerides. About half of the patients in this study participated in a 12-month Tai Chi program while the other half continued their typical sedentary lifestyle. Since all of the patients were classified as high risk for cardiovascular illness, they remained on cholesterol reducing medication in both groups.
The group that received Tai Chi saw a significant improvement on many fronts. Their blood pressure dropped, their total cholesterol and 'bad' cholesterol (LDL) went down, their insulin levels decreased and markers of excess inflammation fell as well. The sedentary control group saw a slight reduction in blood pressure but their cholesterol and triglyceride levels actually got worse - even though they remained on cholesterol reducing medication (chalk up another point for exercise).
Beyond these blood markers, the Tai Chi group also experienced improvements on measure of physical fitness. They significantly improved their exercising heart rate, oxygen uptake and ventilation. The sedentary group saw no such benefits, and, in fact, saw a decline in several fitness markers.
This study provides more positive data for the health benefits of Tai Chi. Why is it so good for you? No one really knows the definitive answer to that, but there are likely many factors.
First, Tai Chi involves slow and deliberate movements that help regulate breathing and focus, which contributes to better stress management. A plethora of studies have shown the health boosting benefits of reducing stress, so this alone is a major plus.
Second, Tai Chi provides moderate levels of exercise that mixes cardiovascular with strength training - holding those poses ain't easy. Even though the movements are slow, practitioners experience a sustained elevation of heart rate. Maybe not as much as shakin' your booty in a jazzercise class, but elevated all the same.
Third, Tai Chi helps improve balance and coordination. This is a huge benefit for older folks, since falling is the number one cause of injury in this age group. Younger folks glean benefit from this aspect as well, especially anyone engaged in athletics. Balance control is central to performance in many sports.
Fourth, often times, folks perform Tai Chi in a group setting, involving the social support aspect. We have written about the huge benefits of social support in the past. In fact, a couple other recent studies found that social support significantly helps recovery from a stroke or heart attack while social isolation makes it worse.
Tai Chi, considered a 'soft martial art', has been around in Chinese culture for a couple hundred years and is now making its way to the rest of the world. It shouldn't be that difficult anymore to find a Tai Chi class in a community near you. Whether you're a busy professional needing to reduce some stress, a retired individual needing to keep your brain and body fit or a patient fighting an illness, Tai Chi seems to have a little something for everyone.
Reference: Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2008) 14:7, 813-819.
By Simon Evans