Month: February 2017

Tai Chi and Brain Health

Tai Chi is an exercise modality that lots of people talk about and yet, few truly understand what it is and how it can help you and your clients.

First of all, let’s define Tai Chi.

Tai Chi is a martial art that utilizes gentle, flowing movements t0 enhance health in             the body and the mind.

Yes, Tai Chi is a martial art.  It started hundreds of years ago as a fighting style.  There are a handful of different styles of Tai Chi, but the most popular one is the Yang style.  It has changed from a fighting style into what we now call “movement meditation.”  It is characterized by the slow, flowing motions that you probably associate with Tai Chi.  These gentle movements are easy on the joints and provide many proven physical benefits such as improving balance, reducing the risk of falls, lowering blood pressure, improving sleep quality and lowering stress and anxiety.  But Tai Chi has also been proven to have a positive impact on brain health.

Let’s first visit the idea that Tai Chi is “movement meditation.”  As an internal martial art, Tai Chi relies on all the movement to be directed by consciousness and not by external, muscular force.  It also focuses on single point concentration so you must be “in the moment” as you do the form. The meditative effect of this conscious concentration, along with the breathing control that is emphasized in the form has been proven to be similar to more traditional, non-movement forms of meditation.

This is significant as we discuss brain health.  In an important study at Massachusetts General Hospital, subjects participated in “mindfulness meditation” for 8 weeks. Comparing the participants’ before and after MRI exams showed an “increase in grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory.” It also showed “decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.” (see the study) One of the authors of the study stated, “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.” Tai Chi can be used as exercise to improve the body, as well as reversing the natural tendency for the brain to shrink with age. The authors also conclude that Tai Chi, “may also improve cognition indirectly by mitigating the know effects of anxiety and depression on cognition through stress-related pathways.”

In a different meta-analysis of studies on Tai Chi and brain health, (see the study), the authors conclude that, “Tai Chi shows potential to enhance cognitive function in older adults, particularly in the realm of executive functioning and in those individuals without significant impairment.” Executive functioning and working memory are associated with short-term memory and the ability to manipulate and reform sequences.  It has been defined as an umbrella term for cognitive processes that regulate, control and manage other cognitive processes such as planning, attention, problem solving and verbal reasoning. The authors state that, “As a physical exercise, Tai Chi provides both moderate aerobic and agility/mobility training, which are each believed to impact cognitive function via unique neurophysiological pathways. Tai Chi also involves the learning of choreographed movement patterns, which may support visuospatial processing, processing speed, and episodic memory. As a mind-body exercise, Tai Chi includes training in sustained attentional focus and multi-tasking. One hypothesis for age-related cognitive decline is that the brain’s attentional control is reduced and information processing becomes less efficient.”  Let’s revisit our definition of Tai Chi for a moment.

Tai Chi is a martial art that utilizes gentle, flowing movements to enhance health in               the body and the mind.

Tai Chi differs from the healing art known as Qigong because it is a martial art.  The flow of the movements is a specific sequence and the practitioner must not only learn each movement, but remember the order of the movements as he or she goes through the form.  This is the “choreographed movement patterns” mentioned above which force the brain into “sustained attentional focus and multi-tasking.”

An even more interesting fact about executive functioning is that it is increasingly seen as a key component in helping maintain healthy balance and postural control.  This is a double bonus with Tai Chi because the movements work on balance and posture through the concepts of columns, substantial and insubstantial and being rooted and grounded in addition to improving executive functioning which in itself is improving balance!

Another brain benefit that occurs when practicing Tai Chi results from the many movements in the form that require one to cross the midline of the body.  Well over half of the movements in the 24 short form are designed with rotation and crossing the midline.  This affects the brain by causing the right hemisphere to have to communicate and coordinate with the left hemisphere.  The creator of the Action Based Learning Lab and neurokinesiologist, Jean Blaydes Madigan, is a strong proponent of “building better brains through movement.”  Her comments regarding the motion of crossing the midline are particularly interesting when considering what practicing Tai Chi can do for your brain health.  She says, “Crossing the midline integrates brain hemispheres to enable the brain to organize itself. When students perform cross-lateral activities, blood flow is increased in all parts of the brain, making it more alert and energized for stronger, more cohesive learning. Movements that cross the midline unify the cognitive and motor regions of the brain.” (See her paper on brains and movement.)

The last point I want to make about Tai Chi and brain health is the most important for all ages and populations.  Because of its general accessibility, Tai Chi has the potential for long term adherence as an exercise protocol. There is no special equipment needed to do Tai Chi.  It can be performed anywhere, inside or outside.  One only needs to wear loose fitting, easy-to-move-in clothing and depending on the surface, it can be done bare-footed. The movements are extremely gentle on the joints, so it is not age-limiting or even injury-limiting.  As one begins to understand all of the underlying principles that need to be included in the practice of Tai Chi, it is truly a life-long learning event. As many studies have proven, exercise is key to not only overall health of the body, but reversing and/or stopping the age-related decline in brain health. So finding an exercise modality that people will continue with throughout their lives is critical.  In the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, they reported on a study in Shanghai that showed actual increases in brain volume in subjects that participated in Tai Chi 3 times a week for 8 months. (see the article) The control subjects who were not doing Tai Chi showed normal, age-related shrinkage in brain tissue.  I use this study to point out to my students that the benefits did not occur because the subjects took class occasionally.  The benefits were manifested in the subjects who practiced Tai Chi regularly and kept doing it long-term. The encouraging point of this is that Tai Chi is something one can add and not increase stress on the body.  The viability of exercise adherence is within reach for almost all of the population.

While Tai Chi has been introduced to Western society in recent years, it is still considered a mysterious, mystical and even religious form of exercise.  This needs to change because of the numerous benefits it can provide to the general population.  As stated earlier, it is being recognized as one of the best ways to reduce the risk of falls in older adults; it has been proven as a non-pharmacologic remedy for hypertension; it reduces stress and anxiety and demonstrates similar improvements in cardiovascular, strength and flexibility as other forms of moderate exercise.  It also improves brain health and can be an effective solution for simple, age-related decline in brain function.  If you are interested in learning more about Tai Chi, or even if you are interested in learning how to teach Tai Chi and start a class in your community, go to  The Open the Door to Tai Chi system is simple, effective and designed to deliver the many benefits of Tai Chi without the mystery.




I’m going to ask a very personal question for each of you to think about.  What is your GREATEST concern about your health for the rest of your life?  Until recently, most people would have said cancer or heart disease; today the major health concern on our planet is losing brain function as we age, being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, dementia or Parkinson’s.

So I have some exciting news: Recent research is supporting an idea worth spreading — changing your aging brain can be as simple as “child’s play”!

I’m 64 and have been passionate about exercise and movement most of my life in order to overcome congenital spinal challenges – the more I move, the less pain I feel and the better my body and brain function.

My brilliant mother did crossword puzzles and games all her life, read 2 or 3 books a week, was a pianist and teacher, hated exercise and struggled the last years of her life with Alzheimer’s.  My artist-sculptor father rarely read anything other than the newspaper. He decided he could sculpt his own body, became an international body builder and lived cognitively sharp and physically youthful almost until the day he died.

So I’ve spent the last 12 years studying the fields of neuroscience, movement and exercise in a top 100 U.S. hospital, in a graduate program in gerontology and as a graduate of The Neuroscience Academy.  My goal has been to understand why people age so differently, and if we have any control over the way we age, both physically and mentally.

Dr. Sarah McKay, who founded of The Neuroscience Academy based in Sydney, Australia, compares the field of neuroscience today to the study of astrophysics in the 17th century – rapid new discoveries about the brain and how it functions are literally mind-boggling!

It turns out that simply playing number and word puzzles does NOT delay cognitive decline.  It only affects some of the brain and just makes you better at puzzles!  And traditional repetitive exercise does NOT stimulate all the brain functions.

Scientists do now believe there IS something you can do to change the brain and help prevent cognitive decline.  I’m here to tell you what it is and give you a few simple ways to do it!  (2 min 20 seconds)

How many of you have heard of the word Neuroplasticity? (Raise hand, point to sign).  It’s clearly a big word that can have an even bigger impact on the lives of each one of you.

Neuroplasticity means you can actually change the form and function of your brain and central nervous system. Dr. McKay and other scientists believe the best exercise for changing the brain is physical exercise; although, it’s not just about physical activity, but consciously choosing to do something new, or in a different way, in order to engage your brain. Knowing how to stimulate neuroplasticity can directly affect the quality of the rest of your life, regardless of your age!

Neuroscientists now believe the primary purpose of the brain is to control movement of the body. From the time you were born until your mid- teens, you didn’t read a book to learn physical activities. Through trial and error, you discovered how to walk, hop, skip, run; play hide-and-seek, use a yo-yo or roller skate. You learned to ride a bicycle or play on a team.

I bet your mother never asked you “Why don’t you go outside and fire some neurons?” Yet every time you PLAYED you WERE firing neurons and developing something called neural pathways that deliver messages between the brain and body.

You were also activating all five primary functions of the brain. As a young girl growing up in Raccoon Valley, TN, I learned to play baseball in a farm pasture with my friends. So I’ll use baseball to explain the functions of the brain.

S (draw) is for strategic planning: how your brain helps your body figure out how to get from point A to B to C. For the good of the game, should my body bunt, walk or hit a line drive right now?

M (draw) stands for memory and recall: remembering a physical experience you’ve had, or recalling information about that activity. If you ever connected the ball and bat – or saw Mickey Mantle do it on TV – you remember how it feels to hit the ball!

A (draw) is for analytical thinking: breaking down the parts or components of an activity.  In baseball, you can bat, pitch, catch, run, or cheer from the stands!

C (draw) stands for creativity and imagination: attempting to do something physical a new and different way, or seeing an image of (4 min 48 sec) yourself doing this activity even before you try it. Practice batting lefty instead of right – and imagine yourself hitting the ball over the wall and out of the park!

K (draw) is for kinesthetic learning:  allowing your BODY to try something physical at first, while the brain observes what you’re doing in order to make you more efficient. I didn’t take a course in baseball. I just grabbed a bat and jumped into the game!

Put the first letter of all these functions together and you have the word SMACK – the sound of neurons firing!

After I swung the bat a hundred different ways, and fired thousands of neurons, I improved!  Messages began to travel more and more quickly along my neural pathways.

In childhood, you learned new activities all the time by playing. You were stimulating neuroplasticity by physically learning and didn’t even know it!

According to Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself, we must learn new things in order to feel fully alive.  When we learn, we alter genes in our neurons, which can change our brain.

Neuroscientists now know we can still develop and change our brains, no matter how old we are!  We can learn through play to restore, maintain and develop NEW neural pathways by doing something physical we don’t know how to do — or by doing something we already know how to do, differently!

It can take as little as 10 minutes of PLAY each day to activate all five functions through physical action. And some of us feel “playing” is MUCH more fun than “working out”!

I’m going to sit down, and invite each of you to join me as we play one or two of MANY physical activities that can help make your brain more functional, alert and focused.  (Be aware if there are people on either side of you.)

We sit, not because we are “old”, but to cause the brain to figure out how to do these exercises from a chair rather than standing; sitting also engages core muscle, vital organs, systems of the body, and energy centers. Add your favorite music, and it stimulates your brain even more.

(7 min 00 seconds)

First, you could choose any sport, but since we’ve been talking about baseball, pretend to warm up and hit the ball!  Switch hit; run, round 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and slide in home! Try this with soccer, bowling…or some sport you’ve never done before!

Next, instead of using a pen or pencil, lets spell with our bodies. With both hands, print a large capital T in the air 2 or 3 times; use both elbows to print a capital E; with one knee, print a D, then with the other knee. With your belly button, draw a small X – stimulating your sense of humor as well as your brain and body! You can spell any word, in any language, in cursive or print!

Pretending to play seated sports or spell with your body causes your brain to strategize, use your memory, analyze, be creative, “figure it out” with your body – and activate all your brain functions! (point to banner).

Dr. Doidge also reports that imagining an act and doing it are not as different as they sound from a neuroscientific point of view. Brain scans show action and imagination “light up” many of the same parts of the brain.

You could also sit and pretend to play different musical instruments; imagine you’re using various tools to build a house or landscape a yard; move as if you’re different kinds of animals.  Try drawing a circle in the air with one hand and a triangle with your opposite foot at the same time! (Laugh) After a while, your would switch sides!

If you knit, change hands. If you play tennis, try serving on your other side.  Or have you ever tried to juggle?

It can help you live an ageless, graceful and happier life, if you improve your body and brain skills by playing some of these simple games each day.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”  George Bernard Shaw said that.  He was right!

I challenge each of you to PLAY 10 minutes a day, every day!
Come up with new ideas each time.

Try something you’ve never done before.

Do something you know how to do in a different way.

I have an idea you’re going to discover that changing your aging brain can be as simple as child’s play!  (Throw hands in the air and kick up heels – wheeee!). 9 Min 36 seconds)


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