Gain Without Pain
Gain Without Pain
Practiced for both its physical and mental health benefits, T'ai Chi is an ancient martial art that has gradually gained adherents around the world. Many are attracted to T'ai Chi's highly choreographed exercises, called "forms," that emphasize balance, controlled breathing and extending one's range of motion. Others tout the calming effect of its meditative routines.
In China, birthplace of T'ai Chi, millions fill urban parks for morning workouts, where their synchronized, slow-motion gyrations form a dreamy counterpoint to the chaotic street scenes playing out around them. That a substantial portion of these exercisers are senior citizens has not escaped the attention of gerontologists and other researchers looking for new and better ways to make our own nation's elders more active.
Sandy Matsuda, an assistant professor of occupational therapy at MU, is among those who believe T'ai Chi would be beneficial for sedentary seniors, particularly those in need of physical rehabilitation. As such, Matsuda has become one of only a handful of therapists certified to teach a rehab-friendly version, called T'ai Chi Fundamentals, that was developed by Tricia Yu, a T'ai Chi teacher in Madison, Wis., and Gail Johnson, a physical therapist in Lebanon, N.H.
"Many exercise programs focus on exertion or vigorous, fast movements to achieve increased strength and endurance," Matsuda says. "T'ai Chi facilitates both strength and endurance through slow and relaxed movements."
Among other benefits, practicing these movements allows seniors to improve their concentration and physical equilibrium, she says. This, in turn, can help prevent falls, a serious problem for older adults. "A fall to an older person can be devastating," says Matsuda. "T'ai Chi puts an emphasis on balance and being aware of your center of gravity. A key principle of T'ai Chi is being aware of where your body is in the present moment. You can gain more control over your body if you move mindfully and slowly."
Matsuda also points to medical research showing that regular practice of T'ai Chi enhances immune function, reduces stress and anxiety, diminishes joint pain, and lowers blood pressure. "T'ai Chi helps people find their natural alignment, which, for virtually everyone, increases leg strength and takes stress off the hips, back and knees," Matsuda says. "We never go to extremes with movements because it is at the extreme where we are more likely to injure ourselves."
Recovering from injury or illness often requires respecting the body's limits and a gentle re-entry to exercise, so Matsuda urges the elderly and others to begin with a qualified instructor. Classes can be physically challenging, and people can become discouraged. So she says it is important that older adults find a teacher whose method of instruction suits them.
Finding such a person is getting easier, thanks in part to MU. Occupational therapy students are learning about T'ai Chi Fundamentals, as well as learning to teach an exercise program based on T'ai Chi principles for use in nursing homes and in pain management.