Every morning, rain or shine, a group of Chinese elders spread out along the lower East River bike path in Manhattan to practice a gentle, flowing martial arts form known as Tai Chi. Their body motions are so slow and deliberate it almost looks as if they're moving underwater. They don't pound the pavement, burn a lot of calories or pump any iron yet the science shows they may be doing just as much for their health as the joggers and cyclists who zip past them.
The latest evidence looking into the health benefits of Tai Chi comes from researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston, who followed a group of heart failure patients as they took a twice weekly Tai Chi class for three months. At the end of the study -- published in today's Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals -- the Tai Chi practitioners felt better, were more confident about their ability to perform everyday tasks and led far more active lifestyles than a similar group who attended twice-weekly health education classes.
The subjects in this most recent study didn't increase aerobic fitness levels but in previous studies where subjects attended class more often and practiced a more strenuous version of Tai Chi, they did. Other studies found Tai Chi helps build bone density, lower blood pressure and even boost the immune system, physical benefits normally attributed exclusively to more vigorous workouts.
Dr. Gloria Y. Yeh, the lead author of the study, says that judging Tai Chi exclusively on its physical advantages, misses the point. In her opinion one of their most striking findings is that the martial artists stuck with the plan; more than three quarters of them kept up their practice the entire 12 weeks and many were still at it when the researchers checked up on them six months later. Considering that less than two-thirds of American adults are physically active on a regular basis and a quarter get virtually no exercise, Yeh thinks Tai Chi can serve as an ideal bridge into a more active lifestyle.
"We know one of the biggest assets of any exercise regimen is adherence. This makes accessibility one of Tai Chi's most valuable components," she says.
What makes Tai Chi so appealing, especially to the over-50 crowd, is that it combines slow movements and stationary postures with breathing techniques and mental focus to create a soothing yet invigorating effect. Although technically considered a martial art, it's more for those interested in fighting their internal demons rather than outside attackers.
"I started because I was looking for healing and stress release and the gym wasn't really for me," says William, a 61-year-old former manager who been taking Tai Chi for three years at Tao Yoga, a tiny studio tucked inside an office building off Union Square. "It definitely clears my mind and helps me get in touch with my true self."
Kathy, 55, a food writer, agrees. She realized she needed to do something to get in shape but she accepted the fact that she was never going to be a gym rat. Now she attends the milder class taught at Tao Yoga several times a week as well as a more vigorous class taught in Chinatown. "I feel lightness in my body and can breathe more fully since I started three months ago. I definitely have more flexibility, strength and balance too," she says.
But Tai Chi certainly isn't the exclusive domain of Golden Agers. More than 7 million Americans age 6 and older participated in yoga or Tai Chi classes last year, reports the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), a 16 percent increase over 1999, and a 30 percent jump over 1998 figures. The average class taker is female and 40 years old.
Some hardcore fitness buffs use it as an antidote to stress and to buffer their more high-impact activities. Instructor Shavon Schwartz says her classes are often filled with 20- and 30y-something males who want to feel calmer and more grounded. "Older people may do it to ease arthritis pain but everyone has their own reason for showing up."