Visitors to China are often amazed when they look out their hotel room windows early in the morning. In parks, squares, plazas, and schoolyards, ten of thousands of Chinese of all ages - but particularly the elderly - begin their days with slow, graceful, beautiful choreographed routines called tai chi chuan, generally known in the United States as tai chi. Practitioners of tai chi say that this centuries-old dancelike exercise, which is derived from the martial arts, clears the mind, relaxes the body, nourishes the spirit, increases energy and contributes to health and longevity. Over the last 20 years, tai chi has become increasingly popular in the United States - both as a gentle form of meditative exercise and as a way to cope with various illnesses. One such illness is multiple sclerosis (MS), the baffling neurological disease that saps the strength and limits the mobility of an estimated 350,000 Americans, most of them women. Tai chi has not been the subject of as much scientific research as yoga, but the few studies that have been published to date point to significant health benefits, particularly for the elderly.

1. Stress

The Chinese researchers who equated tai chi to a moderate-paced walk also measured its ability to reduce stress. They subjected 48 men and women to mentally challenging tests and then showed them a film calculated to upset them. Then the participants were divided into four groups. Each group attempted to destress using one of four activities: tai chi, meditation, a brisk walk or reading. By measuring their heart rates, blood pressure and urinary excretion of stress hormones, the researchers were able to track how quickly the participants recovered from the stress. Tai chi turned out to be as stress-relieving as two better-known stress reducers, meditation and walking. Tai chi would be a good choice for someone who enjoys physically active approaches to stress management but may not be able to take a walk.

2. Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the most severe form of arthritis. Some two million Americans have this painful, potentially crippling inflammatory joint disease. For other forms of arthritis, it is recommended gentle exercise to help control pain and preserve joint function. But many physicians are reluctant to recommend exercise for people with RA because overexertion can trigger joint inflammation. Tai chi does not. In a study, 20 people with RA practiced tai chi two hours a week for ten weeks without any aggravation of symptoms. The researchers concluded that tai chi appears to be safe for RA patients. They also confirmed that tai chi might serve as a safe alternative to other forms of exercise therapy.

3. Balance

In a study, nine pairs of similar women aged 65 to 85 were recruited. One of each pair practiced tai chi, the other did not. Using sophisticated tests, the researchers assessed the women's postural control, their steadiness on their feet and their ability to remain standing when subjected to destabilizing situations, such as a rocking floor. The tai chi practitioners had significantly better postural control, meaning that they were less likely to fall. This finding has considerable medical importance for those over 65. falling is a common - and serious - problem in the elderly, especially for women with bone-thinning osteoporosis. Osteoporosis makes the bones brittle, and when elderly women fall, they risk hip fractures, complications from which are the nation's twelfth leading cause of death and a major killer of elderly women. Weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, helps control osteoporosis, but as women grow older, fear of falling keeps many from getting the weight-bearing exercise they need. All this leads to a vicious cycle: fear of falling, increasingly sedentary lifestyle and increased risk of hip fractures if they do fall. Tai chi can help the elderly stay on their feet, avoid falling and remain physically active, which promotes overall health and well-being.

4. Exercise

A classic, hour-long tai chi routine could raise heart rate and oxygen consumption into the aerobic range, thereby offering the benefits of strenuous exercise, including cardiovascular conditioning. Tai chi's modest intensity produces the kind of moderate workout that exercise physiologists often recommend for the elderly and for anyone interested in reducing their risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and other serious medical conditions.

5. Emotional Well-Being

It was found that tai chi elevates mood, reduces anger, relieves fatigue and increases energy as well as other forms of moderate exercise.

By Raymond Lee

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