Living With Chronic Pain

Tai Chi

Mention exercise to those who suffer with chronic pain and they may recoil. But it’s an integral part of any management program. Finding some type of exercise that works for you is the goal. I love the stretches I’ve shared on my Tuesday posts and the elliptical. After a long day it’s a great way to decompress. But they’re only a fraction of what’s available to get us moving. I often hear the excuse “I have no room” or “I can’t afford the equipment.” Here’s a wonderful option that resolves both those issues.

Most of us have seen pictures of all age groups outdoors practicing Tai Chi. It is often described as “meditation in motion,” but it might well be called “medication in motion.” There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice, which originated in China as a martial art, has value in treating or preventing many health problems. 

Tai Chi is a low-impact series of slow motions named for animal actions — for example, “white crane spreads its wings” -or martial arts moves, such as “box both ears.” As you move, you breathe deeply and naturally, focusing your attention – as in some kinds of meditation – on your bodily sensations. It differs from other types of exercise in several respects. The movements are usually circular and never forced, the muscles are relaxed rather than tensed, the joints are not fully extended or bent, and connective tissues are not stretched. Tai Chi can be easily adapted for anyone, from the most fit to those in wheelchairs or recovering from surgery. 

Numerous studies have shown it can improve muscular strength, flexibility, fitness and immunity, as well as relieve pain and improve quality of life. Muscle strength is important for supporting and protecting joints and all physical functions. Flexibility exercises enable people to move more easily, and facilitates circulation of nutrients and blood, which enhance healing. Fitness improves heart and lung function as well. In addition to enhancing all these components, Tai Chi movements also emphasize weight transference to improve balance and prevent falls.

You don’t need to subscribe to or learn much about Tai Chi’s roots in Chinese philosophy to enjoy its health benefits, but these concepts can help make sense of the approach:

  • Qi -an energy force thought to flow through the body; Tai Chi is said to unblock and encourage the proper flow of qi.
  • Yin and yang-  opposing elements thought to make up the universe that need to be kept in harmony. Tai Chi is said to promote this balance.

It comprises three parts:

Warm-up: Easy motions, such as shoulder circles, turning the head from side to side, or rocking back and forth, help you to loosen your muscles and joints and focus on your breath and body.

Instruction and practice of tai chi forms: Short forms (forms are sets of movements ) may include a dozen or fewer movements; long forms may include hundreds. Different styles require smaller or larger movements. A short form with smaller, slower movements is usually recommended at the beginning, especially if you’re older or in poor shape.

Qigong (or chi kung): Translated as “breath work” or “energy work,” this consists of a few minutes of gentle breathing sometimes combined with movement. The idea is to help relax the mind and mobilize the body’s energy. Qigong may be practiced standing, sitting, or lying down.

Although Tai Chi is slow and gentle and doesn’t leave you breathless, it addresses the key components of fitness -muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and, to a lesser degree, aerobic conditioning. Here’s some of the evidence:

Muscle strength: When practiced regularly, Tai Chi is comparable to resistance training and brisk walking. Even without weights or resistance bands, the unsupported arm exercises involved in Tai Chi strengthens the entire upper body. The choreographed moves are meant to strengthen the lower extremities and core muscles of the back and abdomen as well.

Flexibility: Tai chi can boost upper and lower-body flexibility as well as strength.

Balance: Tai Chi improves balance and, according to studies, reduces falls. Proprioception- the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space -declines with age. Tai Chi helps train this sense, which is a function of sensory neurons in the inner ear and stretch receptors in the muscles and ligaments. Tai Chi also improves muscle strength and flexibility, which makes it easier to recover from a stumble. Fear of falling can make you more likely to fall; some studies have found that Tai Chi training helps reduce that fear.

Aerobic conditioning: Depending on the speed and size of the movements, Tai Chi can provide some aerobic benefits but a more intense cardio workout with a higher heart rate than Tai Chi can offer may need to be added to your program as well. Always clear any activity with your provider. 

Research has shown that most beginners see results in 12 weeks, with instruction once or twice a week and practice at home to see the benefits. This improves with long term use. Get started with any number of sites online such as this one. It can be practiced the same way, every day to develop a routine or done any where, any time, for a few minutes throughout the day. You can even practice the soothing mind-body concepts of Tai Chi without performing the actual movements when in a stressful situation, such as a traffic jam or a tense work meeting.

I didn’t know much about Tai Chi before this post. After watching some videos and following simple, basic moves I found it to be a beautiful, calming flow of movements that stream together in a dance-like fashion. It was a fascinating and interesting alternative to my normal routine. It not only incorporates a graceful way to encourage movement but it can be done by anyone.


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