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Tai chi combats arthritis, study shows

by Matt Doyle
Nov 11, 2008

Tai chi, the slow, stately Chinese exercise, may also reduce the chronic pain of people who suffer from osteoarthritis.

That is the finding of a study conducted by Chenchen Wang of the Tufts-New England Medical Center’in Boston.

Local practitioners of the ancient Chinese art agree.

“I have had people come to me with severe arthritis problems,” said Richard Finkelstein, a tai chi instructor at Chicago Tai Chi Qigong in Lakeview.  “Within six months to a year it pretty much dissipates.”

Wang worked with 40 people who had osteoarthritis in their knees. The participants, whose average age was 65,  were broken into two groups--one doing tai chi two times a week for 12 weeks while the other did stretching and learned about wellness.

The goal was to compare the differences between pain, quality of life, and mood at the end of the study. Ultimately, Wang said the study showed that tai chi “seems to be associated with trends to improvement in disease activity that relates to both symptoms of pain and the cognitive coping process, which in turn is related to physical and psychological disability.”

Many older adults suffer from joint damage when doing more high-impact exercises like aerobics or sports activities, the study said. The traditional Chinese method  has existed for nearly 2000 years and combines slow movements and stretching.

Finkelstein compared the benefits of tai chi on the body to the benefits of using a car.

“The natural state of the human body is movement,” he said. “When the body doesn’t move, it stagnates like when a car doesn’t move it begins to rust. When the human body doesn’t move, the blood doesn’t move enough and things begin to accumulate and the body begins to rust.”

“Arthritis and rheumatism are really a result of modern day life,” Finkelstein said. “The human body was not designed to sit in front of a computer for eight hours a day.”

The Mayo Clinic says tai chi is used to reduce stress, increase flexibility, improve muscle strength,  increase energy, stamina, and agility, and elevate feelings of well-being.

Elizabeth Wenscott, head instructor of the Tai Chi Center of Chicago in Lakeview, believes tai chi is one way people with arthritis can get the exercise they need without engaging in high-impact workouts. 

“I have had students who have rheumatoid arthritis and who also received benefits from doing tai chi,” she said. “Because you are doing soft movements, you are bringing profound levels of  breath to your body. It creates a soft circulation that runs throughout your body. You are able to receive the benefit of the oxygen you are taking in because you are doing it so slowly and intently.”

In contrast to high-impact exercises, like aerobics or jogging, tai chi offers a variety of benefits for the entire body.

“When you do Tai Chi exercises, you are using very little energy,” Finkelstein said. “The energy is being used to move the blood as opposed to trying very hard to doing something. You are actually energy positive when you are doing tai chi, which means you are accumulating more energy than you are using.”

For those who jog or lift weights, tai chi offers an alternative.

“The intent is not to heat the body...or break out into a sweat,” Wenscott said. “The intent is to manage a middle temperate state.”

Finkelstein adds: “If you are running very hard you are exhausting yourself. If you look at people who run hard and run long distances they look worn out.”