TAI CHI & KUNG FU NEWS & COMPETITIONS
LOS ANGELES TIMES April 16, 2007
The Immune-boosting Effects of Tai Chi
Tai chi boosts the immune system and helps balance and well-being
In 12th century China, a Taoist monk known as Chang San-Feng is said to have studied the physical movements of five animals and concluded that two — the snake and the crane — were best suited to overpower opponents who were fierce and tenacious. From that ancient observation, the slow, graceful movements of tai chi were born.
Today, with the art and exercise of tai chi growing in popularity across the United States, scientists have found that older adults who practice this martial art strengthen themselves against an opponent as stubborn as any — the tiny chickenpox virus, which can cause a painful and often persistent nerve inflammation called shingles.
The new study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, is the first — and most rigorous — of a welter of rigorous new studies designed to probe the health effects of tai chi. Also in the works are five federally funded studies examining whether regular practice can help patients contending with heart disease, osteoarthritis and cancer fight off threats such as depression, infection and the pain of joint inflammation. Other studies are probing whether tai chi can improve balance and reduce falls among the elderly, and improve the well-being of patients with HIV.
"Tai chi is clearly an exercise program, but it has something more," says Andrew Monjan, chief of the National Institute on Aging's neurobiology of aging branch. "It seems to be somewhat more effective than simple exercise, and more effective than simple stress reduction." And older adults enjoy it, he says, making it a therapy patients will stick to.
For healthy older adults, the study demonstrated a striking immunity-boosting effect. After 16 weeks of tai chi classes — even before they received chickenpox vaccine — subjects practicing tai chi showed immunity levels to chickenpox (and hence to shingles) that were comparable to those of 30- and 40-year-olds who got the vaccine. After the tai chi practitioners got the dose, their immune response surged by 40%. Compared with a similar group of non-tai chi practicing older adults who received a shot of vaccine and a 16-week health-education program, those who practiced tai chi during the same period built stronger immunity to chickenpox and to shingles. They also showed significant improvements in measures of physical functioning, vitality and mental health.
Tai chi's combination of slow, steady movements, rhythmic breathing and meditation appear to offer a unique mix of benefits. It builds aerobic conditioning. It relaxes the body's response to stress, which tend to intensify as people age. And it increases the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain.
But which of those effects produces the powerful immunity-building responses seen in the most recent study — or whether that effect is the product of some synergy among those effects — remains a mystery, he adds. Future studies may seek to answer that question, Monjan says.
That powerful combination of medicine and behavior, said Monjan of the National Institute on Aging, underscores the important link between physical and psychological health and points to a new way — in this case, a pleasant and accessible form of exercise — to help combat the many chronic conditions that accelerate with age.
Perhaps most encouraging, Irwin and Monjan said, is how readily accepted tai chi is by older adults who try it. The slow, dance-like movements require intense concentration and body awareness — both of which appear to contribute to its meditative, stress-reducing effects. Trying tai chi does not require a high level of conditioning or special skill, Irwin said. It is gentle on stiff joints and muscles and is accessible even to people with physical limitations such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.
For 78-year-old Robert L. Smith and 74-year-old Genevieve Marcus of Los Angeles, both participants in Irwin's trial, tai chi was a new form of exercise. But it is one that this married couple has now adopted as a daily morning ritual. Smith, who has had knee and hip replacement and says he's "fast at everything," finds that tai chi both calms and energizes him. Marcus says it has helped her hone and maintain her balance and become a welcome, meditative part of her day. "We feel in harmony" after conducting the slow-steady dawn sessions, says Smith. "We've just made it part of our routine."
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