Government Panel Probes

Benefits of Martial Plan

CDC studies ancient art of tai chi as possible arthritis aid

From The Journal Inquirer, Manchester, CT, Tuesday, April 27, 2010

By Thomas Goldsmith, Raleigh News and Observer

June Yiu likes the way tai chi introduces slow, graceful movement into her crowded, hectic day.

“You do everything slowly, which I don’t usually do,” busy retiree Yiu, 64, said recently at the Whitaker Mill Senior Center in Raleigh, NC.

Yiu is among more than 350 people in North Carolina and New Jersey practicing the ancient Chinese art as part of a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention of its value for older people with arthritis.

A CDC finding that tai chi for arthritis rates as “evidence-based” – verified by scientific study as helpful for people with arthritis – could mean that the relaxed, mindful exercise Yiu enjoys could help countless people in publicly funded programs across the country.

Smaller studies have concluded that tai chi improves strength and balance in people with arthritis.

“What it means is that staff at all public health facilities across the nation can provide this, and it can be done with federal monies,” said Leigh Callahan, a University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill researcher and principal investigator of the $125,000 study.  “The American Arthritis Association has established a policy that when they deliver any kind of intervention in their senior centers, it has to be evidence-based.”

Everyone involved in the trials was assessed for strength, balance and other factors before receiving training in a tai chi program developed by the Arthritis Foundation.  After the eight-week program, they were assessed again on the same factors.  It’s the largest study of the effects of tai chi on people with arthritis, Callahan said.

“Other studies that have been done have shown that regular participation can lead to increased flexibility in lower extremities,” Callahan said.

People who are interested in tai chi should consult their doctors, but as a general guideline, people can take part in a tai chi session that lasts as long as they can walk: if you can walk comfortably for an hour, you can do a 60-minute session.  That’s the word from Norma Ferrell, the instructor at Whitaker Mill’s tai chi program.

“It helps to build muscle strength and it helps boost our stamina,” Ferrell said.

The eight people in the class were in constant if slow motion as they changed postures under Ferrell’s direction.

“As we rise, we feel the weight of the air,” Ferrell said.  At another point, she advised: “We don’t want to feel any discomfort in our knees as we make this rotation.  It’s all within your comfort.”

A recording of twinkling piano music and long violin tones helped build a mood of calm intensity.

For class members Mary and Will Coward, recent retirees who live in Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood, tai chi has lifestyle and aesthetic attraction as well as health benefits.

“It’s helping me learn to be slow,” said Mary Coward, 61.  “I am a very unathletic person, but it’s so slow that even I can do it.  It’s such a beautiful thing to watch.”

Will Coward, 63, said the languorous pace can be deceiving.

“It’s much more rigorous than you’d expect,” he said.  “You feel like you’re engaged, and your body is stimulated.”

Callahan, 53, the principal investigator, took the instructor’s version of the course.

“I found it surprisingly challenging in terms of the use of my muscles – you notice that you have really done something.  I thought it was challenging yet relaxing.”

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