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Tai chi: A gentle exercise that may help heal your heart

Described as “meditation in motion,” tai chi may foster a sense of relaxation that helps lower stress levels.

Research suggests benefits for a range of cardiovascular conditions.

For centuries, millions of Chinese have practiced the flowing, meditative exercise known as tai chi. In recent years, tai chi’s popularity has risen in the United States, thanks in part to growing evidence for its health benefits. Hundreds of studies dating back to the late 1950s show modest improvements for a wide range of conditions, including heart failure, coronary artery disease, and high blood pressure.

As with other mind-body practices such as yoga, tai chi’s rewards are thought to arise from its combined focus on movement, breathing, and relaxation.

“Tai chi is a gentle, easily adaptable exercise that integrates physical activity, breath awareness, and a variety of cognitive skills that include focused attention and imagery,” says Peter Wayne, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi.

A unique exercise

Tai chi differs from other types of exercise in several ways. The slow, flowing movements are never forced, and your muscles remain relaxed rather than tensed. In contrast to yoga, you don’t fully extend or stretch your joints and connective tissues. And you don’t have to get down on the floor—a boon for people with limited mobility. The sequence of poses can be done standing or while seated in a chair.

Tai chi has proven especially beneficial for people with heart failure, who tend to be tired and weak as a result of their heart’s diminished pumping ability. The upper- and lower-body movements safely strengthen the heart and major muscle groups. Wayne’s research suggests that for people with heart failure, tai chi may improve stamina on par with traditional aerobic exercise. In one small 12-week-long study, those who did tai chi performed even better on a six-minute walk test than those who did aerobic exercise.

Better breathing, less stress

Tai chi offers other benefits as well for heart patients. The deep breathing enhances oxygen uptake, reducing the shortness of breath that’s also common with heart failure. This benefit was also seen in a study comparing heart attack survivors who did tai chi versus those who did stretching exercises.

Tai chi also improves quality of life and mood, likely because of the mind-calming aspects of the practice, which is sometimes described as “meditation in motion.” Some of the series of poses have evocative descriptions, such as “wave hands like clouds” or “white crane spreads its wings,” that help people stay centered and focused, yet relaxed. The resulting stress reduction is vital for people with all types of heart disease, given that stress triggers many physiological changes that may harm the cardiovascular system, notes Wayne.

Benefits for blood pressure and balance

As is true for meditation and deep breathing exercises, tai chi may help lower blood pressure. A review of 26 studies found average drops of several points in blood pressure values in people who did tai chi. It’s not as much as you’d see from taking medication, but it’s similar in magnitude to other lifestyle interventions, such as doing modest amounts of exercise and consuming less sodium.

Tai chi also improves balance and lowers the risk of falling, especially in older, frail people. People who’ve had a stroke (who fall seven times more often than healthy adults) might lower their risk of falling with regular tai chi practice, according to a small study.

Finding a tai chi class

The best way to try tai chi is to take a class at a senior or community center, health club, or hospital. Classes are available at many of the 58 academic health centers throughout the United States that have integrative health programs. Tai chi is also incorporated into many cardiac rehabilitation programs, including those affiliated with several Harvard teaching hospitals. And many assisted living facilities offer tai chi classes free for their residents.

Hour-long classes typically cost around $15, and some centers allow you to pay

by the week, month, or several months. Wear loose, comfortable clothing, and supportive shoes like sneakers. Or you can go barefoot, if you prefer. If you can’t locate a class that’s convenient for you, you can buy a DVD or search online for a video. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has a short video demonstration of tai chi at www.nccih.nih.gov/video/taichidvd-full.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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