Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tai Chi Chih Acutely Decreases Sympathetic Nervous System Activity in Older Adults

A study published in the Journals of Gerontology studied the effects of doing Tai Chi  on the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) of healthy older adults. Significant changes were described in the Tai Chi group vs. the Health Education group, and furthermore vs. a second group performing guided stretching that was not Tai Chi.

"Tai Chi has been described as “meditation through movement” and can be characterized as consisting of a series of prescribed slow, purposeful movements with an emphasis on concentration and relaxation. Besides behavioral and self-report measures, few studies have carefully examined physiological pathways affected by Tai Chi. Our findings support the hypothesis that TCC promotes decreased SNS activity, although changes in blood pressure or heart rate were not found, possibly due to short duration of TCC practice assessment. The mechanisms accounting for the changes in PEP are unclear. Subsample analyses that explored the effects of slow physical movement indicated that such activity is not sufficient to alter PEP. We speculate that TCC may alter sympathetic activity in the short term via other mechanisms such as relaxation and/or meditation. 

Background. Aging is associated with increases of sympathetic nervous system activation implicated in the onset of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. The purpose of this study was to examine whether the practice of Tai Chi Chih (TCC), a movement-based relaxation practice, would acutely promote decreases of sympathetic activity in elderly persons. 
Method. The sample included two groups of older men and women (age ≥ 60 years): TCC practitioners (nnn = 8) returned for a second evaluation and performed videotape-guided stretching for 20 minutes to evaluate the effects of slow-moving physical activity on sympathetic activity.   = 19) and TCC-naïve participants ( = 13). Participants were recruited after completing a 25-week randomized trial of TCC or health education. TCC practitioners performed TCC for 20 minutes, and TCC-naïve participants passively rested. Preejection period, blood pressure, and heart rate were measured before and after the task. A subsample (
Results. Results showed that TCC performance significantly decreased sympathetic activity as indexed by preejection period (p =.01). In contrast, there was no change in preejection period following passive rest or slow-moving physical activity. Neither blood pressure nor heart rate changed after TCC performance.
Discussion. This study is the first to our knowledge to assess the acute effects of TCC practice on sympathetic activity in older adults. TCC performance led to acute decreases in sympathetic activity, which could not be explained by physical activity alone. Further study is needed to determine whether the acute salutary effects of TCC on autonomic functioning are sustained with ongoing practice in older adults."

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hard vs. Soft

Often when I watch new Tai Chi players,  their efforts to reach out too far and step further create a kind of bizzare ballet full of tension.  Unless you are experienced,  flexible and moving in alignment, doing Tai Chi this way will not get you the benefits which you will experience from doing it in a softer, less muscular way.

The flow of the Chi or vital energy is greatly enhanced by relaxing/loosening the physical structures near the energy pathways or meridians. That means if your muscles, tendons etc  are tensed to their limits,  the chi flow will be minimized.

At the other extreme if you are too soft and slumped in your posture, this also hampers the flow of the Chi, which flows faster on a gently elongated spine and extremities.

To the untrained eye, seeing the difference is difficult and that is why when beginners study with a teacher who is experienced, flexible and moving in alignment and they try to imitate his/her postures, they may think that they are doing it correctly, but in fact they are not. They might as well be doing another kind of exercise because they will not get the internal benefits of doing Tai Chi.

In a culture where we push ourselves physically as much as we can (more is better) especially when doing a sport or exercise, the idea of moving with a softer body is somewhat foreign. So where do we net out? Creating a balance between hard and soft is the answer. My opinion is: if you have to go one way or the other, at first, err on the side of being too soft. At least then you will get some of the internal benefits that Tai Chi can bring.

The Chinese word for this is 'soong'.  Shape without tension.  If you lift your arm in a posture, only use the minimum amount of power to effect the shape.  Reach out, but keep an unlocked elbow joint.  Step out but only as far as your foot can reach without locking your kneecap, tensing your calf muscle or reaching too far with your heel or toe.

Be a bit lazy at first.. as your strength and flexibility improves you can then add more 'shape ' to your moves and still be doing Tai Chi.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Is Tai Chi an effective treatment for Fibromyalgia?

Article from Canadian Medical Association regarding American Rheumatology Association in Boston, Mass.
Clinical question: 
Is tai chi an effective treatment for fibromyalgia?

Bottom line: 
Tai chi is an effective and safe intervention for patients with fibromyalgia, and the practice of tai chi should be encouraged.

Wang C, Schmid CH, Rones R, et al. A randomized trial of tai chi for fibromyalgia. N Engl J Med 2010;363(8):743-754.

Study design: 
Randomized controlled trial (single-blinded)



Outpatient (any)
Fibromyalgia is characterized by chronic pain, sleep disturbance, and fatigue. Tai chi began as a martial art but has evolved into a practice that involves slow and stylized movements, breathing exercises, meditation, and relaxation. In this study, adults who met American College of Rheumatology criteria for fibromyalgia were randomized to tai chi or to a control intervention (general education about wellness and stretching). The mean duration of the participants' fibromyalgia was 11 years, and the baseline SF-36 physical health component was only 28 of 100, indicating poor health.
Patients in both groups met for 60 minutes twice a week for 12 weeks, and were asked to practice the intervention for 20 minutes per day at home. Of 124 patients in the Boston area who were screened for participation, 66 were included. Most of the remainder had scheduling conflicts, did not have fibromyalgia, had practiced tai chi recently, or were physically unable to participate. Outcomes were evaluated at 12 weeks and 24 weeks. Follow-up was good (30/33 patients in the tai chi group and 29/33 in the control group at 24 weeks).
Patients in the intervention group had improvements in pain, function, and symptoms that were statistically and clinically greater than those in the control group. Benefits were largely maintained at 12 weeks after the end of formal classes.