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exercise • safe movement • tai chi • overtraining

Tai Chi began as a martial art, but these days itís most frequently practiced for its health benefits and meditative properties. A technique that integrates body, mind and spirit, itís been practiced for centuries in China. It has become a popular exercise for millions of Chinese people, especially older ones. In the last 10 to 20 years, Tai Chi has caught on in the U.S. From parks, community centers and senior-citizen centers to health clubs and YMCA/YWCAs, itís hard to find a place that doesnít offer classes. People all over the world practice Tai Chi daily.

In Tai Chi, you perform a series of slow, graceful and controlled body movements while your body remains straight and upright. It includes stepping, shifting weight and rotating. Throughout the session, you allow your breathing to be deep yet relaxed. Its movements have been compared to yoga and ballet.

Stories abound about the origins of Tai Chi. According to one of the most popular legends, Tai Chiís motions are based on those of a snake. The story goes that a martial arts master was inspired by the mutual movements of a snake and a crane in a lethal dance of attack and evasion. The graceful and controlled way the snake dodged and counterattacked became the basis for Tai Chi.

Tai Chi is a low-impact activity. One key principle (which comes from Taoism) is wu-wei, (or the action of non-action), which refers to going with the flow ó not forcing things.

Like acupuncture, Tai Chi is based on the concept of chi .(pronounced chee), a vital force that courses through your body through specific pathways or meridians).  The traditional explanation is that the practice of Tai Chi improves health by breaking up blockages in the flow of chi, thereby restoring balance. Good health is considered a reflection of this type of energy balance and harmony of the whole body while blocked energy manifests in illness or disease. All forms of traditional Chinese medicine aim to restore balance and to conserve the body's chi or life vitality. This health system includes the practices of acupuncture, massage, herbal medicine and Tai Chi's sister healing art, qigong (pronounced chee gong).

Modern researchers are finding amazing health benefits from Tai Chi. Regular practice builds strength, enhances both muscle tone and circulation and improves balance, flexibility, posture, coordination and range of motion. Some studies also show that Tai Chi can lower blood pressure and heart rate as well as ease arthritis pain. It can help prevent osteoporosis, making it particularly beneficial to women. Tai Chi also can reduce stress, improve concentration and increase energy.

Unlike some other types of exercise, Tai Chi is accessible to people of any age and condition ó children, senior citizens, and even those with walkers. Some modified forms of Tai Chi can be practiced by those with limited mobility. In fact, Tai Chi is particularly beneficial to the elderly and those with impaired motor skills. Since Tai Chi emphasizes correct posture and balance, the exercise may be a safer alternative for women with frail bones. Moreover, you need no special clothes or equipment and you can practice at home.

Medical science remains unclear about how Tai Chi works. While several studies have documented the benefits of Tai Chi, none has completely explained why or how ó at least in the context of Western medicine. But there are theories. While traditional practitioners might attribute the health benefits to the free flow of chi, Western-world scientific research into Tai Chi is finding other possible explanations for its salutary effects. For instance:

* deep breathing promotes relaxation, stress reduction and concentration.

* focused attention not only relaxes the body and mind, it helps cultivate mental alertness.

* the exercises strengthen muscles and bones (for instance, as a weight-bearing exercise that requires you to support your weight while standing, Tai Chi is a good preventive measure for osteoporosis)

* and since most of the movements involve alternating weight-bearing in the legs, Tai Chi helps you cultivate better balance.

Tai chi is extremely effective in improving balance and posture, and mind-body health. More benefits are listed below:

  • Muscle strength is important for supporting and protecting joints, which will assist in decreasing pain and deformity. Muscle strength is also important for improving balance and the ability to perform every day tasks (eg, getting out of a chair).
  • Flexibility exercises help to reduce pain and stiffness associated with musculoskeletal conditions. They also help minimise joint deformity, and improve joint range of motion, which makes movement easier, and more efficient.
  • Aerobic fitness is important for overall health and fitness of your heart, lungs, and muscles. Good aerobic fitness will allow for more efficient and easier performance of every day tasks such as climbing stairs or walking to the shops.
  • Tai chi movements emphasise the importance of weight transference, which is an essential component of good balance. Having good balance is important for falls prevention. Tai chi also emphasises correct posture, which also has benefits for falls prevention, as well as decreased pain and stiffness of joints and muscles.
  • Your mind and body are intricately linked, and the actions of one will impact on the other. Tai chi enhances both mental and physical relaxation, which is important in decreasing pain and stiffness, as well as assisting in healing the body. Tai chi also enhances clarity of the mind and improves mood, which also has positive benefits for your body (eg, a negative mood and pain have been shown to be related).
  • Tai chi facilitates the flow of "qi" through your body. Qi is the life energy that circulates throughout the body, performing many functions to maintain good health. Practicing tai chi helps to strengthen your qi, therefore improving your health.

The American Chiropractic Association (ACA) has recommended tai chi as a beneficial strength training exercise system for those suffering from osteoporosis. The ACA said that even those with severe osteoporosis who have suffered fractures would benefit from tai chi exercise.