Dr. Peter Wayne, Harvard Medical, on Tai Chi

If you are a skeptic, or even if you believe in the benefits of Tai Chi, an invaluable resource is The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp Mind. The book was penned by a researcher, Peter Wayne, M.D. of Harvard Medical. The book uses western medicine to explain the mechanisms behind Tai Chi and covers the numerous studies that show how Tai Chi improves and maintains health.

In an interview with Emperor’s College of Traditional Oriental medicine he and Dr. Jacques MoraMarco (of the college; a tai chi scholar and academic dean) touched on some of the health benefits of Tai Chi. Perhaps some of what he said may inspire you to read his book and/or take up Tai Chi. The following is a summary of the key points he covered:

Tai Chi and Aerobic Capacity.

Dr. Wayne recognized that fast-moving aerobic exercise increases a participant’s heart rate but does that mean it is a superior to traditional aerobics? Not necessarily. Tai Chi may involve, slow, low-impact movements that don’t seem to pack a punch, but the benefits are comparable in some respects. In a study comparing Tai Chi and traditional aerobic evidence, “…at the end of the study those in the tai chi group had greater improvements in walking distance compared to those in the aerobics class. So there’s something in addition to the increased heart rate in tai chi that is beneficial.”

Tai Chi versus Yoga.

Someone unfamiliar with Tai Chi may think it looks similar to Yoga, and in fact it may appear “easier” than Yoga. Perhaps you may wonder why you should choose Tai Chi instead of Yoga. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading one of our previous blogs, Tai Chi or Yoga?

According to Dr. MoraMarco, “one of the biggest differences is that Tai Chi is largely done upright and emphasizes dynamic functional movements…[it] mimics activities of daily living, such as lifting, pushing and pulling things.” This is especially important for older adults who want to maintain their ability to carry on the activities that allow them to live alone. Older adults often cite the loss of independence as their biggest fear or concern related to getting older.

Dr. MoraMarco also quoted a Tai Chi teacher who joked, ” You can get a lot of benefits from meditation and yoga by sitting on a cushion. But if you practice Tai Chi, it’s much harder for other people to knock you off the cushion.” Tai Chi emphasizes the upright, strength and balance. These are aspects of our life that decrease as we get older. Tai Chi is a valuable option to help stave off the decline associate with age.

Tai Chi and Balance.

It’s been repeated on this blog and you’ve probably seen it elsewhere – Tai Chi improves balance. Not only are falls common in older adults but 1 in 5 of those who fall die within one year from fall-related complications. DIE. That’s how important this issue is.

Apart from decreased muscle strength and balance, fear of falling is a key contributor to falls in older adults. Perhaps you have wondered how the fear of falling can make you actually fall. After all, we fear something to awaken that part of us that is all for self-preservation. However, it’s different with balance. According to Dr. Wayne, “Fear of falling typically presents as a tense stance, shallow breath and elevated center of gravity.” Being afraid actually affects how you move, how you walk. Additionally, fear keeps you so focused on fear itself that you lose touch with your environment. If you are unaware of your environment, you are more likely to trip, walk unsteadily or adopt unhealthy movements that put you at risk of falling.

Tai Chi addresses the physical, by promoting strength, balance and the emotional and mental by addressing mind-body connection and awareness. This builds confidence and alleviates the fear of falling, allowing for firm, connected and mindful movements.

Tai Chi and Multitasking.

Tai Chi requires you to do several things at once. You move your body in different planes, “you’re breathing, and you’re aware of your internal mental state as well as your environment.” Dr. MoraMarco compared “people’s ability to manage balance during…other dual tasks before and after practicing tai chi. Tai chi seems to improve the execution of two things at the same time.”

Tai Chi and Western Medicine.

Dr. Wayne based his book on the idea that Tai Chi and western medicine are not mutually exclusive. He believes that Tai Chi can be an important preventative tool in the fight against certain medical conditions and a complementary therapy for those conditions that we already suffer from. In fact, there are programs in Harvard hospitals that include Tai Chi to help with Parkinson’s disease and cardiovascular risk factors.

This blog has explored only some of the myriad of conditions that Tai Chi may affect for the better (click to read more):

Also, some ways Tai Chi improves your health and has preventative qualities:

If you would like to learn even more, check out Dr. Wayne’s book here. Also, check out the Tai Chi for strength and balance DVD at our shop.

Read the interview in full:

Part 1:

Part 2:

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