Tai Chi: From martial art to health promotion

If you find little appeal in the vigorous movements of aerobics or the solemn stillness of meditation, consider Tai Chi. Dating back to the mid-17th century, Tai Chi is a martial art that has gained popularity among the public as a means of healing and preventive care.

Several important aspects of human function--including both the mind and the body--are combined in Tai Chi. It is the combination of these that is believed to activate "meridians" for stimulating chi flow, or vital energy, important in traditional Chinese medicine:

* physical motion, emphasizing balance, coordination, flexibility and non aerobic exercise;

* relaxation and meditation, providing a peaceful meditative experience; and

* breath control, providing the health benefits of improved breathing and associated relaxation effects.

Movements are slow, deliberate and fluid and require certain positions for the hands, arms, elbows, head, shoulders, torso, legs and feet. While the movements may seem strange, they are not random. Called by names such as "Part the Wild Horse's Mane" and "White Crane Spreads Wings," these movements were developed in ancient times as training for hand-to-hand combat.

The special combination of physical activity, relaxation, meditation, breath control and chi flow provide a unique activity with potential for a range of benefits, and have long been recognized as a powerful, effective health-enhancing technique by the Chinese people and practitioners. However, research documenting these benefits has barely begun. A recent study conducted in the Department of Rehabilitative Medicine and funded through the National Institutes of Health evaluated the use of Tai Chi to improve balance in the elderly. After comparison with a control group and other techniques, Tai Chi was found to be far superior for prevention of falls in the elderly, reducing falls by approximately

48 percent. Because falls are the sixth largest cause of death among seniors and contribute to a general health decline even when they're not the direct cause of death, the implications of this finding show great promise.

Suggested areas for future research include the effects of Tai Chi on stress reduction; hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases; arthritis; osteoporosis; and body image and eating disorders.

Because the public is utilizing alternative medical techniques in record numbers, there is an increasing awareness in the medical community of a need to consider a wide range of techniques for healing and preventive care. Much research needs to be conducted to explore the use of this traditional health practice with modern research methods: a productive and powerful combination of East and West.

Tingsen Xu is associate professor in the Department of Rehabilitative Medicine and Tai Chi Master. Stacey Jones is special projects marketing manager in the Emory Clinic. For more information, call 320-0055.

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