Why tai chi is par­tic­u­larly good for the brain

AN AN­CIENT CHI­NESE EX­ER­CISE, TAI CHI HAS BEEN CRED­ITED WITH MANY HEALTH BEN­E­FITS AND IS PAR­TIC­U­LARLY CALM­ING ON THE BRAIN. JU­LIA BRAYBROOK EX­PLAINS WHY

Good Health Choices - - Content -

Ex­er­cise has long been praised for its ben­e­fits for men­tal health, though for many of us smash­ing out a full-on work­out can be a chal­lenge, es­pe­cially if you’re not at your fittest, find it hard to keep up as you age, or if you’ve been strug­gling with your men­tal health al­ready. What­ever the sit­u­a­tion, if you’re more in­clined to gen­tler work­outs then tai chi can see you reap­ing the re­wards of ex­er­cise on the brain.

Tai chi is a Chi­nese mar­tial art that uses slow, med­i­ta­tive ex­er­cises that are de­signed for re­lax­ation, bal­ance and health. The prac­tice is of­ten re­ferred to as a ‘mov­ing med­i­ta­tion’ as the slow, grace­ful move­ments can be used as a means to pro­vide a re­laxed fo­cus for the mind – par­tic­u­larly ben­e­fi­cial for those suf­fer­ing depression or anx­i­ety.

One study pub­lished in the jour­nal BMC Com­ple­men­tary and Al­ter­na­tive Medicine saw re­searchers from

Tufts Med­i­cal Cen­tre in the US review more than 40 stud­ies on the prac­tice, which found that prac­tis­ing tai chi was as­so­ci­ated with re­duced stress, anx­i­ety, depression and mood dis­tur­bances, and also in­creased the self­es­teem of par­tic­i­pants.

This may be partly down to the work­out’s low-in­ten­sity mind-set. Tai chi classes of­ten work with the prin­ci­ple of do­ing move­ments to 70 per cent of your abil­ity, so you shouldn’t feel like you’re cre­at­ing ad­di­tional ten­sion in your body. The ar­gu­ment, prac­ti­tion­ers say, is that striv­ing to give 100 per cent while work­ing out pro­duces stress, as strain­ing or go­ing beyond your ca­pac­ity drains your en­ergy re­serves. This prin­ci­ple does as­sume that you’re in good health, but those who are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing stress or dis­com­fort at a phys­i­cal, emo­tional or men­tal level are en­cour­aged to ad­just the rule to suit them. For in­stance, if you’re heal­ing from a phys­i­cal in­jury, you may only work at 50 per cent of your ca­pac­ity for a few months, then move to 60 per cent, and then 70 per cent as your body heals.

This can also make it a good prac­tice for those be­ing treated for depression, and aug­ment­ing an­tide­pres­sants with tai chi has been found to be ef­fec­tive. In a 2012 study pub­lished in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Geri­atric Psy­chi­a­try, 122 adults aged 60 or older with ma­jor depression who had been tak­ing the an­tide­pres­sant es­c­i­talo­pram for six weeks were as­signed to a fur­ther 10 weeks of ei­ther tai chi or health ed­u­ca­tion. Af­ter tak­ing twohour classes each week, those in the tai chi group were more likely to have re­duced symp­toms and to ex­pe­ri­ence re­mis­sion than those who just had health ed­u­ca­tion. They also per­formed bet­ter on cog­ni­tive tests and their lev­els of the in­flam­ma­tory C-re­ac­tive pro­tein had fallen more than those in the con­trol group. Study lead au­thor He­len Lavret­sky, says that there is one down­side to tai chi; like all phys­i­cal ex­er­cise, it’s “not easy for every­body” – she says peo­ple can be sur­prised how much of

Orig­i­nally de­vel­oped as a fight­ing art, the ori­gins of tai chi date back more than 400 years, some say even up to 1500 years. A 15th cen­tury Taoist monk named Zhang San Feng is usu­ally cred­ited as its

cre­ator.

Tai chi is a gen­tle Chi­nese mar­tial art

a sweat you can work up even when the ex­er­cises look gen­tle. Dr Peter Wayne, re­search di­rec­tor of the Osher Cen­tre for In­te­gra­tive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hos­pi­tal and Har­vard Med­i­cal School, agrees: “The slow­ness that you see from the out­side can be de­cep­tive.” De­pend­ing on the in­ten­sity at which you train, as an aer­o­bic work­out, it’s roughly equiv­a­lent to a brisk walk.

Tai chi also in­volves a lot of bend­ing, stretch­ing and mov­ing, so make sure you’re wear­ing loose, com­fort­able clothes that al­low you to move freely and stay cool. Some in­struc­tors pre­fer par­tic­i­pants to be bare­foot, while oth­ers rec­om­mend flat-soled, flex­i­ble shoes.

Classes will gen­er­ally be­gin with loos­en­ing ex­er­cises to open up the joints and re­lax tight mus­cles, be­fore mov­ing on to gen­tle stretch­ing ex­er­cises and work­ing on ‘forms’. Those forms are made up of a se­ries of move­ments – once you’ve learned enough move­ments you’ve learned a tai chi ‘form’ or ‘set’. Like all work­outs, there are sev­eral styles – Yang, Wu and Chen – and each has their own form. If it’s your first time do­ing tai chi, you’ll find learning short forms the eas­i­est, as they’re be­tween 13 and 40 moves long and take be­tween three and 20 min­utes to com­plete.

It can be a lit­tle in­tim­i­dat­ing as moves can be very tech­ni­cal and co-or­di­nated, but you’re en­cour­aged to learn at your own pace – don’t worry if you’re feeling frus­trated or like you’re not ‘get­ting’ the moves. Take things slow, and spend around 10 min­utes a day learning a few pos­tures rather than rush­ing a rou­tine – and don’t for­get to warm up first.

Any­one of any age or fit­ness level can try tai chi. For older adults es­pe­cially, tai chi comes with many ben­e­fits. A review in 2009 of tai chi and qigong – an­other Chi­nese prac­tice sim­i­lar to tai chi – an­a­lysed 36 clin­i­cal tri­als with al­most 4000 par­tic­i­pants and found that fol­low­ing the prac­tices sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved depression and anx­i­ety among older adults. In fact, the ex­er­cise is con­sid­ered so ben­e­fi­cial for older adults, it’s rec­om­mended as a first-line treat­ment for mild depression, in part be­cause it has been shown to im­prove bal­ance and re­duce falls. The phys­i­cal com­po­nents tar­geted by tai chi – leg strength, flex­i­bil­ity, range of mo­tion, and re­flexes – are all needed to stay up­right and also tend to de­cline with age. A 2017 review pub­lished in the Bri­tish Med­i­cal Jour­nal found that the prac­tice was as­so­ci­ated with a 20 per cent lower risk of fall­ing at least once and a 31 per cent drop in the num­ber of falls ex­pe­ri­enced by older adults, while a 2012 review in The New Eng­land

Jour­nal of Medicine found that tai chi was par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive for im­prov­ing bal­ance in those with Parkin­son’s dis­ease.

‘The slow­ness that you see from the out­side can be de­cep­tive’

There are likely to be tai chi classes run­ning in your area. Head to taoist.org/nz to find an in­struc­tor. You can also find videos on Youtube. To get a flavour, try the ex­er­cises in the box (right) at home.

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