Research reinforces findings that Chinese exercises benefit older adults

June 28, 2006

Champaign, Ill. - New work by researchers at the University of Illinois lends strength to previous research documenting the health benefits of Qigong and Taiji among older adults who practice these ancient Chinese martial-arts forms.

Qigong (chee-kung) and Taiji (tye-chee) - or Tai Chi, as it is more commonly known in the U.S. - combine simple, graceful movements and meditation. Qigong, which dates to the middle of the first millennium B.C., is a series of integrated exercises believed to have positive, relaxing effects on a person's mind, body and spirit. Tai Chi is a holistic form of exercise, and a type of Qigong that melds Chinese philosophy with martial and healing arts.

"Traditional Tai Chi training includes Qigong, but most contemporary Tai Chi researchers have omitted Qigong from their research," said visiting kinesiology professor Yang Yang. "As a result, previous researchers may not have documented all of the health benefits possible from traditional Tai Chi training."

Yang, a Tai Chi master with three decades of experience, said Tai Chi and Qigong are relatively simple, safe and inexpensive, and require no props or special equipment, making them easily adaptable for practice by healthy senior citizens.

In two studies - one quantitative, one qualitative - presented recently at the North American Research Conference on Complementary & Integrative Medicine, lead researcher Yang found that healthy seniors who practiced a combination of Qigong and Tai Chi three times a week for six months experienced significant physical benefits after only two months.

Not only did participants demonstrate noticeable improvements in laboratory-controlled tests designed to measure balance, lower body strength and stance width, a subset of participants who contributed responses in the qualitative study provided dramatic evidence of how Tai Chi and Qigong practice had also enhanced their lives from a mental, emotional and spiritual perspective.

"Seniors said, 'Now I can put my socks and jeans on just like I always used to, standing up instead of sitting down," said Yang, who published the results of the studies as his doctoral dissertation. Yang said a woman noted that she had reduced the number of strokes required to swim across the pool - from 20 to between 11 and 14. Another said she was more confident of her ability to climb the stairs to her attic.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Karl Rosengren was Yang's Ph.D. adviser and is a contributing author of the U. of I. studies
Other evidence pointed to improvements in sleep quality, concentration, memory, self-esteem and overall energy levels.

Other positive statements by participants regarding how they generally felt better mentally and physically: The quantitative study included 39 participants and a control group of 29; the average age of participants was 80. Each was given a battery of physical performance tests in the beginning as a baseline, then again after two-month and six-month intervals. The smaller qualitative study consisted of in-depth interviews with four of the exercise participants described by Yang as "very enthusiastic about their Tai Chi and Qigong practice."

"At present, Yang is the only one who has been putting those two things - the quantitative and the qualitative - together," said kinesiology and psychology professor Karl Rosengren, Yang's Ph.D. adviser and contributing author of the U. of I. studies.

"Usually they are not seen together in the same research."

Yang and Rosengren said the quantitative study is the first, to their knowledge, to employ a randomized control trial (RCT) designed with testers blind to group allocation and to combine laboratory platform balance measures with multiple measures of functional balance and physical performance.

"It is also the first Tai Chi RCT to evaluate potential sensory organization improvements in elderly practitioners, to evaluate whether balance and strength improvements are significant predictors of a laboratory loss of balance measures, and to evaluate stance width as a possible learned strategic mechanism for improved postural stability," Yang said.

In real-world terms, improvements in these areas are believed to reduce seniors' risks of falling and suffering potentially catastrophic consequences.

Yang, who also is the director of the Center for Taiji Studies and the author of the book "Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power" (Zhenwu Publications), said one of the facets of the studies most interesting to him is how comments collected from the interviews correlated with the quantitative data gathered in the lab.

For example, in assessing the effects of Tai Chi and Qigong practice on participants, the researchers used a number of standard physical-activity measurements, among them, the single leg stand, or SLS. The SLS measures the length of time an individual can stand on one leg, with eyes closed and eyes open.

"With eyes open, we saw an 83 percent improvement after two months," Yang said. "With eyes closed, we did not see results - 29 percent improvement - until the end of six months.

Numbers alone don't tell the full story of the results, however, Yang said.

"But when you see how it translates to functional performance ... how meaningful it is to their daily life - putting on jeans, taking groceries out, even the posture you have when you hold your grandchildren - the results are significant."

Also telling, he said, is the strong desire among study participants to continue practicing Tai Chi and Qigong beyond the bounds of the research.

"The program has demonstrated its sustainability at one of the senior-living facility instruction sites, where an enthusiastic activities director has continued classes and actually expanded participation since the completion of the study, he said."

Rosengren said the U. of I. research team plans to continue studying the links between Tai Chi and Qigong and the benefits of their practice for older adults.

"We plan to focus on trying to understand the mechanisms more," he said. "We'll also try to investigate more closely the effects of the expertise of the instructor by looking at other research that's been done and trying to get measures of expertise in training.

"One of the things I think gets lost in a lot of the Tai Chi research is that the quality of the instructor matters. We've seen programs where they don't really care about that. They'll have someone who's had six months of Tai Chi experience, and they think they can teach Tai Chi.

"Having watched Yang and having seen videotapes of instructors with minimal experience, there's a huge difference," Rosengren said. "It's the wealth of knowledge he brings and the combination of the science from the West and the traditions from the East that actually bring together things in a very positive way."
Co-authors with Yang and Rosengren on the quantitative study include Jay Verkuilen, Scott Grubisich and Michael Reed. Additional co-authors on the qualitative study are Reed, Sharon DeCelle, Robert Schlagal and Jennifer Greene.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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