Need Focus and Impulse Control? – Practice Tai Chi

Without getting into an incredibly detailed discussion of your brain and nervous system, you have two modes of being; your sympathetic (“fight or flight”) mode and your parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) mode. Technically you need both, but many of our psychological and physical health issues come from over-activation of our sympathetic system – i.e. living in fight or flight. While that is bad enough, over time aspects of our brain will change to essentially facilitate operating in that undesirable mode making true emotional and physical wellness more difficult than just changing habits, diet or other aspects.

One of the principle reasons why people have a hard time changing their diet, lifestyle and emotional behaviors is that without the activation, growth, and development of certain parts of the brain the changes we wanted to do become a correction after we act (a response), rather than the consistent act of balance and choice without choosing (see “wu wei“) that we desire. In essence we want our initial, thoughtful intent to be what drives our behavior, not to always act by reacting to internal or external stimuli.

Put more simply, we want a brain to tell us we are calm and our reactions to be as they would be from a calm, thoughtful person, not to have to consistently tell ourselves that we “should” be calm after we behave poorly.

Much of this is laid out in detail in the text “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.” The text itself doesn’t have much to do with Buddhism, if anything really, but it discusses in practical terms the outcomes of some very extensive studies on a group of Tibetan meditation practitioners. Long story short, their brains facilitate the primary responses of calm, thoughtfulness and attention that we desire. And their brains do that because they are conditioned and developed, not unlike a muscle in our physical body, to perform that function. Essentially, if we live in fight or flight we focus poorly, we behave aggressively, we react – if we don’t, we don’t.

So how do we accomplish this?

Well there are any number of studies discussing the developmental changes that happen with the regular practice of meditation, and other internal arts such as yoga, tai chi, qigong and others. If you are not interested in the science, you can probably stop reading here and just start a basic meditation program or start taking tai chi, and over just a few months you will experience these positive changes.

For those who would like to better understand some of what is happening on a scientific level to better facilitate their mood and behavior researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School as well those from the Fujian University of Traditional Chinese Medicine among other institutions, recently conducted a brain imaging study to explore more deeply.

Researchers led participants through a 12 week program of tai chi and ba duan jin qigong exercise. Ba Duan Jin, also known as the “eight brocades” is a very common form of qi gong practice that has a few variations. We practice it regularly as part of our tai chi classes in my clinic in Chattanooga – there is a video of our version of it midway through a recorded live broadcast of our free weekly meditation, qi gong and tong ren class.

The participants were older adults and while the researchers were looking at all aspects of the brain scans, they were primarily interested in reducing memory deficiencies. They used various brain scans at the beginning and the end of the 12 week study and found that both Tai Chi and Qi Gong significantly increased grey matter volume (i.e. made them more active) in the following areas:

  • Insula – involved with perception, self-awareness, interpersonal communication, and cognitive/sensoral processcing.
  • Medial Temporal Lobe – important area for declarative memory (facts and events).
  • Putamen – involved in all aspects of physical movement.

There were no significant differences between a group that practiced only qi gong and a tai chi only group. Essentially the participants in such a short time experienced “improved mental control, recognition, touch and comprehension memory scores” – the researcher concluded that the results demonstrate the potential of tai chi and qi gong practice for preventing memory deficiencies in older adults.

While researchers here were looking at older adults and memory any exploration of those brain areas make it fairly clear that these benefits would be applicable to improvements in focus, impulse control, emotional control, and other related aspects in all ages. While your “fight or flight” system is telling you to just maintain the status quo and keep on doing what you are doing, now would be the time to start making changes – avoiding problems rather than managing them after the fact, that is “wu wei“.

Tai Chi Improves Psychological Health in College Students (Study)

Psychological issues among college students have “soared in the past decade” as discussed by PBS reported Hari Sreenivasan in a recent program entitled “More stress, less stigma drives college students to mental health services“. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a recent series entitled the “Epidemic of Anguish” which goes into more depth about the issues facing students and the higher education institutions that are trying to support them.

According to a journal article “Media and Risky Behaviors,” youth violence has direct and indirect costs of “$158 billion each year.” Further, “although twelve- to twenty-year-olds made up about 13 percent of the U.S. population in 2005, they were responsible for some 28 percent of the single-offender and 41 percent of multiple-offender violent crimes.”

These are serious issues and medicating students across the board, while at times helpful using various measures, is not the answer.  While wildly complicated to implement and change without multi-generational approaches, we do know of many scientifically backed and clinically valid ways to allow for more compassionate and calm minds.  The positive research on meditation alone is literally exhausting to go through.

mediumFrameSoloFormDVDThis short article, however, is not going to get into many of those deeper systemic issues and possible solutions.  Although future ones will.  No, this article is to talk about a recent study in the “Preventive Medicine Reports” journal entitled “A systematic review of the health benefits of Tai Chi for students in higher education.”

I’m living under no delusions that the entire country is going to start practicing Tai Chi, but as I often tell my students – you often get much more than you could have expected from the practice of Tai Chi.

Here is what the researchers found doing meta-analysis of over 70 reports including over 9000 participants:

  • Primary Outcomes

  • Increased Flexibility
  • Reductions in symptoms of Depression
  • Reductions in symptoms of Anxiety
  • Improvements in interpersonal sensitivity
  • Secondary Outcomes

  • Improved Lung Capacity
  • Improvements in Balance
  • Faster running times
  • Improved quality of Sleep
  • Reductions in Compulsive symptoms
  • Decreased Hostility

So if you want to be faster, breathe more deeply, be less anxious and depressed and sleep better.  If you want to have more compassionate tendencies and reductions in feelings of hostility.  Then perhaps you should consider the art of Tai Chi….

Tai Chi Found To Reduce Fatigue in Patients Undergoing Chemotherapy

There are literally volumes of studies regarding Tai Chi and the health benefits it offers.  So many, in fact, that it is somewhat tiring (but inspiring!) reading through them continually.  I’ve written previously on some of the basic health benefits of tai chi, and many other articles on health benefits related to depression and anxiety, diabetes and diabetic neuropathy, insomnia, systemic inflammation, fibromyalgia and many others.  Why another report then?

As a teacher of Tai Chi and a Chinese Medicine practitioner, I find that there is still too little the public (notably the western public) knows about this art.  The cost of entry in terms of commitment, so to speak, can be a little high.  So that can be a barrier for some – similar to the follow through required for dietary change and any other significant lifestyle change or new exercise program.

Some know it as a martial art, but doubt the effectiveness vs. other martial systems so they go a different direction.    Some know of the health benefits but don’t understand how significant they are.  How study after study more significant benefits are found and are far stronger (and safer – even rebuilding after a heart attack) than other types of exercise.

Without this knowledge your motivation might not be there to start going out in your yard and moving incredibly slowly in orchestrated moves much to the intrigue of your neighbors!

In all seriousness, however, we are at a bit of a health crisis and many of the benefits of Tai Chi appear to slow or outright halt many of the low level progressive health issues we face as westerners particularly.  So it’s worth a good hard look at.

One other aspect that the study I’m going to discuss highlights, is that you do not need to be in great shape to start practicing Tai Chi, you do not need a martial arts background, you do not need particular clothes or shoes, you just need training and a bit of follow through (like 20-30 minutes 4 or 5 days each week of follow through).

taichi_park_chinaTraditionally, many, many practitioners of Tai Chi, some of whom who became great masters, started Tai Chi because they were in poor health.  Some were young, some were in their 50’s, 70’s, even 90’s before they started.  They used it as a tool to regain the strength and resilience of their body and mind.  Some of the stories are actually pretty amazing.  This was all much before we had relatively intense western studies looking at the deep health benefits on a physiological level.  People just knew that Tai Chi was their best option to dig themselves out of the trouble they were having with their health.

Researchers at the Taizhou People’s Hospital in China recently conducted a study looking at the benefits of Tai Chi with lung cancer patients who were undergoing chemo treatment.  Chemotherapy can be a deeply fatiguing endeavor for patients, and with lung cancer, it can be even more so.  To see if Tai Chi could help alleviate their fatigue, researchers recruited 96 patients over a couple years all of whom were having chemo treatments.  The intervention required one hour of practice every other day over a 12 week span and the control group was a low-impact exercise group.

Using the Multidimensional Fatigue Symptom Inventory Short Form (which has been well validated as a measure), the researchers evaluated each patient group before their first chemo treatment, before their 3rd course and again after their 4th course.

Researchers found that while both groups improved in mood and psychological well-being, the Tai Chi group experienced much better results in both physical and stamina/vigor measures.  The researchers concluded that

Tai Chi is an effective intervention for managing cancer-related fatigue in patients with lung cancer undergoing chemotherapy, especially for decreasing general fatigue and physical fatigue, and increasing vigor.

This study helps illustrate a couple aspects that are important to me.  The most important is that you do not need to have a special level of fitness to practice Tai Chi.  Secondly, the health aspects of Tai Chi appear to happen almost instantaneously upon beginning practice.  Now certainly over the long-term there are other benefits.  And the benefits for cancer patients (and other chronic illnesses) are likely much deeper than this study indicates when you place this study with others highlighting effects on immunity, on blood levels, on cardiovascular strength, etc.

All things considered, Tai Chi, deserves a much deeper more systemic look from the western medical world and the public in general.  While it is an old art in some ways, it seems it has much to offer us in modern times.

Study Finds Long Term Tai Chi Practice Keeps You Smart

The practice of tai chi is well known to provide a number of promising health benefits. Most of these are some by product of the increased circulation through the body while in a relaxed state. Many of the benefits, such as gait and balance improvements, can be seen in as little as 4-6 weeks and other more high level benefits can take decades of practice.

While many studies have looked at the benefits of Tai Chi, there are far fewer studies that compare differences between long-term, “expert”, practitioners and short-term, “beginners”. I think studies of this nature are quite important; both for tai chi and for other internal arts such as meditation.

Researchers in the study we will discuss, publishing in the “Global Advances in Health and Medicine” journal recently explored the long term effects of Tai Chi on cognitive function.

As age and lifestyle related memory decline is a growing issue both with an aging population in many countries and longer life spans, it is important to examine what may help us maintain our cognitive functions. From this study at least, tai chi appears to be one of the beneficial tools over the long term.

The “beginner” participants in the study were given 6 months of training and the “expert” participants had more than 12 years of training. The researchers recruited 60 beginners and 27 experts, all within the ages of 50-79, and related them by age and gender. Then using a range of cognitive function tests they evaluated their overall level of function.

The researchers found significant levels of cognitive maintenance in the expert practitioners. They concluded: “In healthy nonsedentary adults, long-term TC training may help preserve cognitive function; however, the effect of short-term TC training in healthy adults remains unclear.”

I would think that seeing significant cognitive improvements in 6 months would be unlikely, but I also feel that you would not need 12+ years of practice to see them either. That said, when you examine some of the health benefits of Tai Chi on both immunity and cardiovascular function it is fairly clear that consistent practice would reap positive results by most accounts. A study evaluating after a year of practice with a one year followup, compared with a more middle of the road group – says 3-5 years of practice, would be ideal to evaluate this.

Either way, this study shows yet another reason to keep practicing tai chi. Certainly in my teaching experience (10+ years), I have seen amazing turn arounds in my senior students of the art. Primarily in cognition and balance/strength. Observationally, I have seen the majority of these benefits begin after 1 year of 2-4 days/week practice.

Tai Chi Helpful For Rebuilding After A Heart Attack

There are volumes and volumes of studies regarding the health benefits of Tai Chi – many are covered in my article “the multiple health benefits of Tai Chi.” One area that may be initially surprising to non-practitioners is it’s role in cardiovascular development. Through a combination of using the thighs like 2nd and 3rd heart pumps and by relaxing the vascular body instead of constricting parts as in cardio training, Tai Chi practitioners receive strong cardio development without the risk of many regular cardio exercises.

This is crucial for people trying to strengthen following a heart attack where more traditional cardio workouts can be difficult – even fatal. Publishing in the American Heart Journal, a group of Brazilian researchers looked at the cardioprotective and strengthening affects of Tai Chi practice on people with recent myocardial infarctions (MI, i.e. “heart attacks”). In particular they were looking at increasing peak oxygen consumption (Vo2 peak) which is limited after a MI.

The researchers divided 60 patients who had had a MI in the last 14-21 days into two groups – a stretching group and a tai chi group. The tai group performed tai chi 3 times weekly for 12 weeks. Compared to the control the tai chi group received a significant improvement in Vo2 peak of around 14% – whereas the control group experienced a 5% decline (worsening).

They concluded saying that based on these results Tai Chi constitutes an effective form of cardiac rehabilitation for patients with recent myocardial infarctions.

Study Finds Tai Chi Reduces Depression and Anxiety Symptoms

Tai Chi is written about time and time again due to a wide array of health benefits. Many of them are covered in an article I wrote a few years ago. Of these benefits, balance and strength are the most noted particularly with avoiding falls. Cardiovascular benefits are also well researched and one part of this affect comes from the inherent stress reduction within these moving meditation exercises.

A group of researchers from Australia recently conducted a study looking at the role Tai Chi could play in reducing depression and anxiety symptoms – in particular within obese patients diagnosed with depressive disorders.

The researchers recruited 213 patients and divided them into a tai chi intervention group and a control group (wait-list). Tai Chi was offered via a 24 week program with analysis at week 12 and week 24. They looked at changes in stress, anxiety and depression levels as well as leg strength, weight changes and other metabolic issues. They found positive changes across the board at week 12 and even further improvements at week 24.

Certainly from a Chinese Medicine perspective many of these conditions are deeply inter-related and Tai Chi, much like acupuncture or Chinese herbal medicine, engages the body and the mind systemically which often leads to broader improvements than in other interventions. The researchers recommended more longer term studies to confirm their findings.

Meditation Found To Alleviate Migraine Pain Within One 20 Minute Session

If there is one recommendation I universally recommend to people it is to learn and practice meditation.  So many problems in our lives are caused and/or contributed to by ongoing unresolved emotional and physical tension (i.e. “stress”).  Meditation is shown time and time again to be an effective antidote to these issues.

A study published in the pain management nursing journal recently found that even one session of meditation for total beginners can significantly reduce migraine pain.  In this study, researchers recruited 27 migraine sufferers who each had 2-10 migraines each month and who had no experience in meditation.

They were asked to attend a 20 minute meditation session while they were having a migraine.  The particular method used was what is called “loving kindness” meditation or “tong-len” in tibetan.  Tonglen meditation generally involves focusing on the pain of others and taking that onto yourself to alleviate their suffering.  

After the session the participants reported a 33% decrease in pain and a 43% decrease in emotional tension.  This is significant considering the response that many patients get from strong migraine medications which are probably in that general range of effectiveness.  Longer term meditation practice and its role in resolving or managing migraine symptoms would have to be further analyzed, but other long term studies have shown very positive effects on stress levels and neurological functioning.