Lloyd Blackwell III (center) and his wife, Patricia, have conducted tai chi classes on campus for years. Medical researchers are looking at how this ancient practice can yield health benefits ranging from lower blood pressure to improved balance and focus.
An Ancient Path to Better Living
UND researchers are examining a way to help college students lower blood pressure, the elderly remain independent longer, and possibly help prevent workplace accidents. What is this miracle? The Chinese martial art of tai chi.
The ancient practice is designed to exercise mind, body and spirit. With slow, circular, fluid movements, tai chi looks almost like a dance. But as participants move through the various stances, they gently work muscles and build concentration. According to Chinese philosophy, participants improve their flow of chi, the vital life energy that maintains health and calms the mind. While that may sound very other-worldly, UND researchers are finding results that back up these claims.
Beverly Johnson, D.S.C. (M.S. ‘90, B.S.P.T. ‘76), director of clinical education in the physical therapy department, became interested in tai chi about 10 years ago. One of her students said she felt practicing tai chi gave her a competitive edge as a triathlete. Johnson was intrigued and took part in a class led by the student.
“Walking out of that class that day, I really felt energized,” Johnson said.
Since then, Johnson and other UND researchers have conducted tai chi studies. One looked at older folks while a second focused on college-age students. In both studies, significant results were found.
The first study, conducted in 2000, involved 15 community-dwelling elders ages 62 to 91. “They loved it,” Johnson said. “Compliance was excellent.”
At first, some of the participants needed to use chairs to maintain their balance during classes.
“By the end, none of them were using any support,” Johnson said.
Tai chi is found to improve balance and posture, which means fewer falls. By cutting down on falls and resulting injuries, seniors may be able to remain independent longer.
In addition to better balance, researchers also discovered improvements in breathing and flexibility and a significant decrease in blood pressure among participants. With these improvements, some people may be able to put off the need for medication for these issues, Johnson said.
Similar results were found in the study of students. “This can be for anyone of any age,” Johnson said.
Those taking tai chi classes in the 2000 study were compared with a control group that just continued with their normal activities. After the study was done, members of the control group were offered the opportunity to take tai chi classes, too. Not only did they want to give the exercises a try, some of the researchers joined in as well.
More and more such studies are being conducted around the country.
A growing body of evidence supports what has been found by researchers at UND: Tai chi is beneficial to cardio-respiratory function, flexibility and balance control, and aids the immune system. It also helps alleviate pain, such as that caused by arthritis.
Some studies have gone further, looking at the benefits to people with heart disease. Those recovering from heart attacks or other cardiac issues usually are prescribed some sort of aerobic fitness training as part of their new ongoing routine. Tai chi fits the bill. Although considered just a moderate-intensity exercise, it gives participants a workout.
Tai chi can improve balance and posture, meaning fewer falls. By reducing injuries from falls, seniors may be able to remain independent longer.
“It does become physically taxing,” Johnson said.
Johnson is so impressed with the results of studies detailing the benefits of tai chi — and with her own initial experience — that she continues to use the movements herself. With her hectic travel schedule, Johnson uses tai chi to relieve stress, reduce blood pressure and alleviate back pain.
Tai chi classes are more readily found on the West Coast, and it is not unusual for classes to be offered there in long-term care facilities. Locally, classes are held from time to time at Altru, on the UND campus or through community education. Instructional videos are available, but nothing beats working with a real expert who can make sure beginners, in particular, are doing the movements correctly. People must be meticulous about the movements in order to achieve full benefits, Johnson said.
Insurers also are interested. About 30 percent of people ages 65 and older living in the community fall each year. In institutions such as nursing homes, the percentage is even higher. Though less than 10 percent of these falls result in a fracture, 20 percent of falls require medical attention. A study examining the economic impact of offering tai chi classes in nursing homes found such institutions save more than $1,200 per participant per year by preventing falls and related injuries.
Falls, slips and trips also are major sources of injuries in the workplace, Johnson said. UND plans to begin working on a prevention partnership with Blue Cross/Blue Shield in early 2007. Among the issues they will study are the benefits of offering tai chi in the workplace and improving balance in people before they turn 40.
- Brenda Haugen
Office of University Relations
University of North Dakota