Tai Chi . . . the best “pill” for chronic pain

Tai Chi as a form of exercise has the attention of the medical community as an important alternative therapy for dealing with chronic pain.  In the May/June, 2017 edition of Scientific American Mind, an article entitled, “Rethinking Relief” the author talks about chronic pain sufferers such as those with fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis. The traditional approach to dealing with this chronic pain has been to dispense pain-killing drugs.  But with the explosion of cases revolving around opioid addiction, the medical community is searching for alternative methods of helping those with chronic pain. “To treat people more effectively ‘will require an important shift in how we think about pain,’ says David Shurtleff, the deputy director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health . . . ‘We now understand that pain is not just a sensation but a brain state,’ Shurtleff explains. ‘And mind-body interventions may be particularly helpful.’”

Let’s take a look first at the studies surrounding a relatively new condition called fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is a whole body syndrome that affects about 2% of the population. Most of those affected are women.  It is characterized by chronic musculoskeletal pain, poor sleep quality, muscle tenderness, fatigue and even cognitive dysfunction.  These symptoms obviously affect quality of life and can result in significant overall disability.  Exercise is often recommended for people with fibromyalgia, just like it is for people who suffer from arthritis. But many people in these groups complain that exercise is too intense and makes them hurt more instead of relieving symptoms.  In my own experience with clients with fibromyalgia, they are concerned with the “rebound” effect that occurs after exercise.  While the exercise might feel good at the time, the symptoms of fatigue, pain and sleep disturbance all increase significantly afterwards and continue for days.  In a paper entitled, “Exercise Therapy for Fibromyalgia,” the authors state, “Several exercise studies over the past three decades demonstrated that persons with fibromyalgia are able to engage in moderate and even vigorous exercise; however, in many studies, participants experienced difficulties performing and adhering to vigorous and even moderate-intensity regimens because of increased fibromyalgia symptoms.” In an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, a similar comment begins the review of a study regarding Tai Chi and Fibromyalgia, “Although exercise is beneficial for fibromyalgia and has been advocated as a core component of its treatment, most patients continue to be in considerable pain years after the original diagnosis and require medication to control symptoms; they also remain aerobically unfit, with poor muscle strength and limited flexibility. New approaches are needed to reduce musculoskeletal pain in patients with fibromyalgia and to improve their physical and emotional functioning and quality of life.” (see the article)

Tai Chi is an excellent option for people with fibromyalgia because it is comprised of gentle, flowing movements and is easily progressed or regressed depending on the symptoms of the participant.  As the study in the NEJM describes Tai Chi,” It is considered a complex, multicomponent intervention that integrates physical, psychosocial, emotional, spiritual, and behavioral elements. Because of its mind–body attributes, tai chi could be especially well suited to the treatment of fibromyalgia.”  This study assigned participants to either one of two exercise interventions.  One group took 2 classes each week of Tai Chi and the other group took 2 classes each week which consisted of wellness education surrounding fibromyalgia and included at least 20 minutes of gentle stretching.  Both of these interventions lasted for 12 weeks.  The participants completed the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire (FIQ) which has been validated to accurately assess the overall severity of symptoms along with other self-evaluation tools and evaluation by staff and physicians who were unaware of group assignment.

According the study, the Tai Chi group had significant improvement over the control group.

In the discussion section of the study, the authors conclude, “The observed benefits exceeded the specified thresholds for clinically significant improvement in the FIQ score and in the measures used to assess pain, sleep quality, depression, and quality of life, and these benefits were sustained at 24 weeks. No adverse events were reported in the study participants, indicating that tai chi is probably a safe therapy for patients with fibromyalgia.”

I currently have a client with severe arthritis, scoliosis and fibromyalgia.  Two of her physicians recently wrote letters that state her practice of Tai Chi is “medically necessary” for her overall care.  Her rheumatologist wrote that Tai Chi, “should help her improve her balance and decrease her risk for falling. . . Improvement in strength should allow her to be more independent and exercise more, improving her overall health.  It should also help reduce pain that she experiences from fibromyalgia and help improve joint mobility, decreasing limitations from osteoarthritis.”  The other physician who specializes in women’s health states that our common client has, “functional goals that include walking at a pace equal to her peers, walking more than one mile prior to needing to discontinue, going up and down stars without having to rely on the railing so she doesn’t lose her balance and putting on her pants without having to hold onto something.”  (Side note:  This client and her husband enjoy traveling immensely and hiking and sight-seeing are especially important to the enjoyment of their retirement.)  This Dr. concluded that, “Tai Chi would improve her balance and muscle strength that would lead to a decreased risk of falling, allow her to walk further and improve her endurance. Her posture would improve with the rotation that Tai Chi helps to improve. Tai Chi can also decrease her fibromyalgia pain and improve her joint mobility.”  Wow.  Knowing that my client desires to maintain her active lifestyle despite her disabilities, it’s wonderful to see that by simply adding this gentle form of exercise, she can continue to travel and enjoy seeing the world.

The NEJM article also mentioned that while the study itself lasted for 12 weeks, the researchers redid the questionnaires and evaluations at the end of 24 weeks and the improvements for the Tai Chi group had been maintained. This is an important point that is sometimes overlooked when examining exercise therapy.  The activity must be one that the patients will continue to be involved in and actually make it a part of their lifestyle.  Because Tai Chi is such a gentle form of movement, and yet challenges both the body and the mind, it is particularly suited to long-term adherence which is crucial for continued improvement.

The researchers in the study stated that the actual biological pathways for the improvements shown are unknown.  Their explanation of why Tai Chi is so beneficial to fibromyalgia patients combined the physical and the mental aspects of this form of exercise.  “Physical exercise has been shown to increase muscle strength and blood lactate levels in some patients with fibromyalgia. Mind–body interventions may improve psychosocial well-being, increase confidence, and help patients overcome fear of pain. Furthermore, controlled breathing and movements promote a restful state and mental tranquility, which may raise pain thresholds and help break the “pain cycle.” All these components may influence neuroendocrine and immune function as well as neurochemical and analgesic pathways that lead to enhanced physical, psychological, and psychosocial well-being and overall quality of life in patients with fibromyalgia.”

And like my client’s physicians observed, Tai Chi is not only helpful for pain relief in those with fibromyalgia, but also in the bigger subset of people who suffer from osteoarthritis.  In a recent article on WebMD entitled, “Tai Chi: A Gentle Way to Help Your Joints,” one of the physicians explained the benefit of Tai Chi this way: “When you repeatedly compress the joints, the synovial fluid flows in the cartilage better.  That nourishes it, which makes the ends of joints slippery so they can move smoothly.”  The article also cites an 8-week study completed by the Arthritis Foundation in which they found that the participants, “improved their ability to balance, and reported less pain, fatigue and stiffness.”  In the aforementioned article in Scientific American Mind, the author references a review of clinical trials that concludes “Tai Chi proved most helpful for those with chronic pain resulting from osteoarthritis.”

So as the medical community has begun to embrace Tai Chi as a non-pharmacologic alternative therapy, perhaps you should consider including it in your exercise regimen. As a form of exercise, Tai Chi is very accessible.  The movements are gentle and not difficult to learn.  There is no special equipment or even apparel necessary.  If you are interested in learning Tai Chi and maybe even learning to teach it to others, please visit www.taichisystem.com.  The Open the Door to Tai Chi system is dedicated to helping the everyday person incorporate this amazing form of exercise into their life.

Dianne Bailey, CSCS

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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 www.taichisystem.com.  The Open the Door to Tai Chi system is simple, effective and designed to deliver the many benefits of Tai Chi without the mystery.

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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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Try This Simple Tai Chi Move With Your Older Clients to Improve Their Balance

Try This Simple Tai Chi Move With Your Older Clients to Improve Their Balance
(this is the last in a series of guest blog posts on the benefits of Tai Chi)

So how can Tai Chi help your clients in their everyday lives? Let’s look at the move in the form called Pushing Chi. It is a really simple move. Here are the basics:

The most important thing about Pushing Chi is to learn to move from the dan tian. As you begin, with one foot forward, bring your hands to the level of your dan tian. As you bring your weight forward, let your hands drift out away from your body. As you bring your weight back, bring your hands back to the dan tian. Since the breathing is very easy to add to this movement, you can incorporate the breathing pattern right away and it helps to relax the body. Breathe out as you push away from your body and breathe in as bring your hands towards your body. Don’t allow your back heel to raise up off the ground as you push forward. Keep both feet grounded. This will challenge some people as they may have a very tight Achilles tendon. If you struggle with keeping your heel down, shorten your stance a little at first. You will be able to lengthen that stance as you develop some flexibility in your foot and ankle.

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You can teach a lot of things with this one move. The concepts of columns, substantial and insubstantial, energy flow, begin rooted and grounded, moving from the dan tian and breathing all come into play with this move. Of course, these concepts don’t intuitively transfer to the everyday lives of our clients.

Let’s look first at columns. With Pushing Chi, it is easy to help your clients understand how posture affects their movement. They can look in a mirror and see if their shoulders are staying above their hips. This is important because, as you know, some clients can’t “feel” if their posture is poor. They don’t connect with their bodies as easily as we might do so. But with Pushing Chi, they can visually check themselves and start the process of understanding how correct posture feels.

As a client moves forward and back in Pushing Chi, you can also explain how the concept of substantial and insubstantial is helping them with their balance. Ask them to lift the insubstantial leg and see if they can be balanced on one leg or the other. Obviously, if they can begin to understand how weight shift helps them be more balanced, they can start to translate this to their everyday walking.

Pushing Chi also helps to show clients if their stance is too narrow or too upright, they will be very vulnerable to falling. By teaching the concept of being rooted and grounded and lowering their center of gravity, clients can feel how much more balanced they become with a wider, deeper stance. Women in particular are hesitant to widen their stance. They feel if doesn’t look “lady-like” or it makes them look bigger. But once they feel how much more balanced they become, they want to try it with their regular walking.
Teaching breathing is actually a very difficult concept within Tai Chi. But it is easy for clients to practice with Pushing Chi. Once they understand and feel comfortable with this simple movement, they can start to concentrate on slowing down their breathing and coordinating with the movement. You breathe in as you come towards your body with your hands and you breathe out as you move away from your body with your hands. Clients get a sense of how deeply they can breathe as they do this movement and many of them have never felt the calming sensation that accompanies slow, deep breathing! Tai Chi has been proven to lower blood pressure, stress and anxiety and the breathing component is key to accomplishing these health improvements.

Become a Certified Tai Chi Instructor and take your exercise programming to the next level! Click HERE to find out more!

Dianne Bailey is an experienced martial artist and Tai Chi instructor. She created the Open The Door to Tai Chi certification program so that more fitness professionals can quickly and easily learn how to integrate Tai Chi into their exercise programs to improve balance, strength and cognition with their older clients.


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Tai Chi for the Body, Breathing, Mind, Chi and Spirit

Tai Chi for the Body, Breathing, Mind, Chi and Spirit

(this is the fifth guest blog post in a series on Tai Chi)


Unlike many popular forms of exercise Tai Chi is about much more than just training the body.  In fact, we could say that Tai Chi is a holistic practice which is why so many older adults are so drawn to it.  Below I explain the 5 levels of learning in Tai Chi.


Regulating the body, breathing, mind, chi and spirit 

There are 5 levels of learning in Tai Chi and they progress in a ladder fashion. One cannot regulate the breathing before learning to regulate the body. The ultimate goal of regulation is no regulation. In other words, once you master regulating the breathing, you don’t actually work on your breathing as you do the form. It comes naturally and allows you to begin regulating the mind, which then allows you to begin to lead the chi. I learned these steps from an outstanding book called “Tai Chi Chuan Classical Yang Style” by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming.  If you are interested in learning more about Tai Chi, I highly recommend his books and other media.

#1 Regulating the body. You must first learn to coordinate the movements of your body for each posture. This is the basic level and involves learning to be rooted, balanced, centered and relaxed.  Some people never really get past this level and that is okay!  It is especially difficult to make your body learn new movements if you have never done a martial art before.  Don’t get frustrated!  You will reap many of the benefits of Tai Chi just by working on this level.

#2 Regulating breathing. Once the movements become second-nature and you no longer have to work hard at being balanced, rooted and centered, you can begin to learn how to control your breath. This breath-control starts the process of coordinating your mind with the movements in a clear and relaxed state. This level is where you will really start to realize the benefits of stress/anxiety relief, blood pressure reduction, mood enhancement and an increased overall sense of well-being.

#3 Regulating the mind. The goal of regulating the mind is actually coming to a place of no thought. You are completely “in the moment” and are experiencing calmness, peacefulness and relaxation throughout the form.

#4 Regulating the chi. When you can get to a place of regulating the mind, you can begin to “lead” the chi throughout the body. This is actually very tricky, because if you think about the chi in a certain part of your body, the chi will stagnate there and stop circulating. You want your chi to move naturally and smoothly.

#5 Regulating the spirit. This is simply explained as the Daoist idea of releasing the mind and body from any bondage of concern in this world and allowing the spirit to reach heights of enlightenment.


My goal is not to make you into a Tai Chi “guru” or a follower of the Daoist philosophy. It is important to understand these ideas and concepts, however, to make your practice of Tai Chi what you want it to be. And that idea, in the end, is what is ultimately important . . . the idea that Tai Chi will help you in your attempt to be the best person that you can be.



Want to Learn More?  Click HERE for your FREE Tai Chi mini-course!


Dianne Bailey is an experienced martial artist and Tai Chi instructor.  She created the Open The Door to Tai Chi certification program so that more fitness professionals can quickly and easily learn how to integrate Tai Chi into their exercise programs to improve balance, strength and cognition with their older clients.

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Could This ONE Tai Chi Move Save Your Client’s Life?

Could This ONE Tai Chi Move Save Your Client’s Life?

(this is the fourth guest blog post in a series on Tai Chi)


Let’s discuss how Tai Chi can help your clients in their everyday lives.  There is a move in the form called Kick, Smash and Box the Ears.  It’s deliciously violent! But more than that, it actually helps your clients understand how to balance and avoid common falls with simple tripping obstacles.


Here is the move in the form:

Your weight must be completely on one side in order for you to kick and then hold the knee up to smash, and then control your step down to box the ears. This is great practice for learning the concept of substantial and insubstantial. It is great to start with just stepping side to side. Then step side to side and lift the knee. Then step side to side, left the knee and kick. If you are kicking with your left leg, extend your left arm out over your leg and bring your right hand up to block. Then step side to side, lift the knee, kick, smash and box the ears. Remember there is a head between your fists when you box the ears, so don’t allow the fists to come together.

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How can you possibly apply this to your client’s everyday life? Hopefully, they are not fighting someone where they need to kick them and then box their ears!


Well, think about your client in a parking lot with the concrete markers at the foot of the parking space.  How many times have people tripped on these concrete barriers?  Lots of times!  And amazingly, Kick, Smash and Box the Ears will help them so they don’t have to worry about tripping over any barriers again.


When you teach this move, it is important to let your clients know that the height of the kick is not important.  The crucial part is that they are balanced as they lift their leg.


And then they need to understand how to move from the Dan Tian.  The Dan Tian is two inches in from the belly button and two inches down.  It is the center of energy in Tai Chi.  It is also the center of balance from a traditional exercise physiology viewpoint.


You cannot just fall over your forward foot.  That increases your chances of falling. You must learn to lower your center of gravity and move from your Dan Tian.  This incorporates the central principle of being rooted and grounded in Tai Chi.  Your focus is not your upper body, but rather your core and being able to center yourself as you move.


Try this yourself before you attempt to explain it to your clients. Lift one leg and then lower it in front of you.  Do you feel balanced?   Or do you feel like everything is in front of you?  Our natural inclination is to fall forward.  Tai Chi teaches you to be rooted and grounded and to move from the core (the Dan Tian) which makes you much more balanced.


So let’s look at the parking lot example again.  If your client can think about being rooted and grounded and to move from the Dan Tian, they will easily step over the barrier and not have to worry about tripping and falling.  Tai Chi is not just a series of gentle, flowing movements.  It actually helps your clients be more balanced and improves their everyday activities!


Click HERE to become a Certified Tai Chi Instructor by studying online at your own pace…and save $100 now!


Dianne Bailey is an experienced martial artist and Tai Chi instructor.  She created the Open The Door to Tai Chi certification program so that more fitness professionals can quickly and easily learn how to integrate Tai Chi into their exercise programs to improve balance, strength and cognition with their older clients.


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Tai Chi: “It’s better than a glass of wine!”

Tai Chi: “It’s better than a glass of wine!”
(this is the third blog post in a series on Tai Chi)

The above quote is an actual proclamation from one of my students at the end of class one night. I told you this is for the everyday person! Let’s take some time to look through all the things that you can expect from learning this relaxing, slow martial art.

The benefits of including Tai Chi into your exercise regimen are numerous. Because of the slow, meditative approach to movement, some people question it as an exercise modality since the aerobic component is not high. You should not dismiss it, however, simply because you might not break a sweat doing it! The intensity of this form of exercise can be increased or decreased depending on the depth of the postures and the duration of practice. It is certainly a low-impact form of exercise which is beneficial to people with existing joint issues and to people who want to avoid joint issues.

Let’s take a look at both the scientifically proven benefits and the anecdotal benefits that occur with the regular practice of Tai Chi.

Physical benefits

As you would expect, there are many physical benefits when one practices any form of exercise over a period of time. The benefits that research has proven with the regular practice of Tai Chi are surprisingly far-reaching, especially in our current climate of anti-aging remedies. The Mayo Clinic lists some of the benefits of Tai Chi as:

Improved aerobic capacity
Increased energy and stamina
Improved flexibility, balance and agility
Improved muscle strength and definition
Enhanced quality of sleep
Enhanced functioning of the immune system
Reduction in blood pressure
Reduction in joint pain
Improved symptoms of congestive heart failure
Reduction in the risk of falls in older adults

That list is impressive just by itself! There are other studies that have proven improvement for those who live with chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s disease, osteoarthritis, COPD and others. It has also been proven to improve bone mineral density in elderly women. One study (Tai Chi Chuan: an ancient wisdom on exercise and health promotion) even stated that, “The long-term practice of Tai Chi Chuan can attenuate the age decline in physical function . . . .” It’s no secret that we are living longer now due in part to medical advances. It can be argued that we are not necessarily living better, however. The practice of Tai Chi can possibly be one of the ways we are able to increase the enjoyment of our later years because of the improvements it provides in physical function.

One of the biggest concerns of aging is falling. Obviously, the physical detriment of broken bones or concussions or even just severe bruising are difficult for the aging population to deal with. The mental effect of being scared it will happen again is even worse, however. There are many studies that show a rapid decline in independence after just one fall. Clearly, working on balance is an important concept to help prevent falls. In a meta-study, authors Wong and Lan wrote in “Tai Chi and Balance Control” that, “recent studies substantiate that Tai Chi is effective in balance function enhancement and falls prevention.” They also concluded that, “Tai Chi improves static and dynamic balance, especially in more challenging sensory perturbed condition.” A different study on the effect of 4-and 8-week intensive Tai Chi training on balance control in the elderly concluded that, “even 4 weeks of intensive Tai Chi training are sufficient to improve balance control.” Anecdotally, I have witnessed this in the classes I teach. Many of my students comment on the marked improvement in their balance. One student in particular related the story of how she and her husband were hiking and she was getting frustrated because she felt unstable going over the rocks. Then she remembered her Tai Chi training and started to incorporate some of the principles of columns and weight shift, and she immediately felt more balanced and in control on their hike!
One of the other anecdotal effects that I have seen in my classes is weight loss with Tai Chi. It is not something that people express as a goal when they start Tai Chi, however, I have had several students who have admitted that beneficial weight loss has been a side effect of their training.

Mental benefits

The benefits of Tai Chi are not only substantiated as physical benefits. There are important mental and emotional benefits as well. Let’s return to the list of benefits from the Mayo Clinic. They also list the following as resulting from practicing Tai Chi:

Decreased stress, anxiety and depression
Improved mood
Improved overall well-being

And I would add the following to that list:

Increased mental focus
Improvement in working memory/executive function
Social enjoyment and interaction

The studies concerned with the effect of Tai Chi on psychological well-being are not as conclusive as the studies on the physical benefits due in part to the obvious reliance on subjective measures. In general, however, the studies do demonstrate beneficial effects in regard to practicing Tai Chi for depression, anxiety, stress management and mood disturbance. One study on the therapeutic benefits of Tai Chi exercise (Kuramoto AM) states that, “Tai Chi can influence older individuals’ functioning and well being . . . and the positive effects of Tai Chi may be due solely to its relaxing, meditative aspects.” Just the other day, I had a student comment to me after class that, “It always seems that whatever I’m dealing with on a particular day just eases back into the proper perspective when I’m done with Tai Chi. It obviously doesn’t make the problem go away, but it feels like I can approach it with a better mindset and a healthier attitude.” That’s really the beauty of Tai Chi. It’s not some mystical, magical force or religion. In one study that measured heart rate, adrenaline, cortisol and mood during Tai Chi (Jin P), “Relative to baseline levels, subjects reported less tension, depression, anger, fatigue confusion and state-anxiety. They felt more vigorous and in general, they had less total mood disturbance.” In another meta-analysis regarding Tai Chi exercise and the improvement of health and well-being in older adults (Yau MK), “There is considerable evidence that Tai Chi has positive health benefits; physical, psychosocial and therapeutic. Furthermore, Tai Chi does not only consist of a physical component, but also sociocultural, meditative components that are believed to contribute to overall well-being.” This same study concluded that, “It is recommended as a strategy to promote successful aging.” That’s quite an endorsement! You might say that Tai Chi comes close to being a fountain of youth for those that practice it!

In my own experience, I have seen the improvement in mental focus and working memory. If you are not “in the moment” and really thinking about your movements and how to apply the principles of Tai Chi . . . you will get lost! You can’t think about what’s for dinner that night, or the fight that you had with your spouse the night before. You must focus your mind on the task at hand and that actually causes a relaxation and meditative effect. Because many of the movements force you to cross the midline, you are also forcing your brain to function in a different pattern by making the left side talk with right side. Jean Blaydes Madigan, a neurokinesiologist states that, “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.” Wow! You are actually making your brain function better on all levels with the simple practice of Tai Chi!

In two different meta-studies concerned with the cognitive performance in healthy adults (Zheng, G, et. al and Wayne PM, et.al), they both concluded that “Tai Chi shows potential protective effects on healthy adults’ cognitive ability. Tai Chi shows potential to enhance cognitive function in older adults, particularly in the realm of executive functioning.” Executive function is defined on WebMD as “ a set of mental stills that help you get things done.” Who doesn’t need to get more things done in their life?? And unfortunately, if we don’t work at it, executive function declines as we age.

The last point I want to mention about the benefits of practicing Tai Chi is the most subtle, but certainly a very important point, especially as we age. I see a community develop in my classes that is so strong, it supports each member and provides a social interaction that is rare in our society. Many studies have shown that for successful aging, people need to be involved and to interact with each other. My students come to class to enjoy the benefits of Tai Chi . . . but they also come to class to enjoy the social interaction and support from their classmates. This kind of support and interaction can happen in any number of different venues, of course. I think the combination of the relaxing atmosphere, a non-intimidating, simple to move kind of exercise and the joint experience of learning something new that has a calming influence on your mood is un-paralleled in the exercise world. Tai Chi brings together your physical well-being with your mental and social well-being in a unique experience that can be practiced for years. Better than a glass of wine, indeed!
Click HERE to get $100 off the Open the Door to Tai Chi certification program (for a limited time only)!

Dianne Bailey is an experienced martial artist and Tai Chi instructor. She created the Open The Door to Tai Chi certification program so that more fitness professionals can quickly and easily learn how to integrate Tai Chi into their exercise programs to improve balance, strength and cognition with their older clients.

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Tai Chi Is NOT What You Think It Is!

Tai Chi Is NOT What You Think It Is!

(this is the second in a series of guest blog posts on Tai Chi)


There are MANY misconceptions that people have regarding Tai Chi.  And these misconceptions keep them from exploring how incredible it is for so many different types of people.  Thanks, in large part, to martial arts movies many people might immediately think of a very old man of Asian descent with a long white beard in flowing robes gliding around a temple.  While this image certainly has an element of truth to it due to Tai Chi’s very long history in China this is not really the Tai Chi of today nor the Tai Chi that fitness professionals need to learn.  So what really is Tai Chi?  I want to take the chance to provide you with a clear understanding of what it is and what it isn’t.

Does Tai Chi have a religious element?

The origins of Tai Chi are based in Daoist thought and began in the Shaolin Temples as a martial art for the monks. You do not, however, have to accept or practice any religious thoughts or ideas in order to truly benefit from Tai Chi. In the Open the Door to Tai Chi system, we focus on Tai Chi as an exercise and do not explore any of the religious aspects.  

Do I have to meditate?

There is a definite meditative effect to practicing Tai Chi and there is ample reason for calling it “movement meditation.” If you are not “in the moment” as you do the form, you will get lost and you won’t be able to incorporate all of the important concepts and principles into the form. You do not, however, have to meditate in the traditional sense.  

Is it like yoga?

No. Yoga and Tai Chi vary from one another in several ways. First of all, you are always standing in Tai Chi. In yoga, you may have varying postures including standing, sitting, lying down and even inversions. Yoga has different variations such as Hatha, Vinyasa, Bikram, etc. Tai Chi also has different variations such as Yang, Sun, Chen and Wu. The Open the Door to Tai Chi system teaches the Yang style 24 or Short form. In some variations of yoga, you may have a flow of moves, or you may do separate postures for varying amounts of time in no particular order. Tai Chi is a martial art and it is meant to do as a flow of moves in a determined order. Both Tai Chi and yoga are considered mind/body exercises because of the internal focus developed when practiced.  

Do I actually have to spar anyone?

No. While Tai Chi is certainly a martial art and it improves your practice if you develop a sense of your opponent, you do not actually have to fight anyone! Some Tai Chi schools teach “push hands” and forms using weapons which more closely mimic sparring because you have a partner. In The Open the Door to Tai Chi system, however, we simply focus on the form which is performed as an individual.  

How many different styles of Tai Chi are there?

The different styles of Tai Chi are Yang, Chen, Wu, Sun, Hao and some combinations as well. In The Open the Door to Tai Chi system, we focus on the Yang style, 24 or short form.  

Do instructors have to be certified?

Traditionally, instructors for Tai Chi had to follow a lineage from the original masters in the style. This limited the number of instructors because one would have to find a master, be accepted and probably have to travel extensively to get the years of instruction needed. Some have tried to buck this system by simply learning Tai Chi from videos and then teaching what they learned. This doesn’t, however, give them any kind of feedback as to how they are actually doing with the form and how to improve. There are some organizations in the U.S. that “certify” instructors, but they typically follow the “lineage” form of certification. This shortage of qualified instructors is why I created the Open the Door to Tai Chi system. I want everyone to have access to a competent instructor so more of us can experience the benefits of Tai Chi!

Do I have to wear a uniform?

No. All you really need is comfortable, loose-fitting clothes.  Although . . . some of my students after they have practiced Tai Chi for awhile start to request the “silk pajamas” that they see on people in YouTube videos!

Do I have to wear shoes?

No. You can do Tai Chi barefoot. Or you can purchase Tai Chi shoes which are really just minimal slipper-like foot covers. Be careful doing the moves in sport shoes, however, because they tend to be a little too “grippy” and/or clunky and you might twist a knee awkwardly.  

I have had a hip replacement (shoulder/knee replacement).

 Can I still participate in Tai Chi?

Yes!! Especially if you get involved with the Open the Door to Tai Chi system because we teach it as an exercise and encourage any modifications to movements for all individuals in class. This is not about perfection of movement. It is about movement and helping your body and mind relax.

In the next blog post we will discuss many of the amazing benefits of Tai Chi support by the scientific literature and why it is one of the best (evidence-based) forms of exercise for older adults today.

Want to Learn More?  Click HERE for your FREE Tai Chi mini-course!

Dianne Bailey is an experienced martial artist and Tai Chi instructor.  She created the Open The Door to Tai Chi certification program so that more fitness professionals can quickly and easily learn how to integrate Tai Chi into their exercise programs to improve balance, strength and cognition with their older clients.


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Why You Should Use Tai Chi With Your Mature Clients: It Is Easier Than You Think!

Why You Should Use Tai Chi With Your Mature Clients: It Is Easier Than You Think!
(this is the first in a series of guest blog posts on Tai Chi)

You might be wondering “What can Tai Chi really do for my clients? Isn’t it just a slow moving way to relax?” Well, yes, it is slow moving and relaxing and there are certainly benefits that occur from these aspects, but Tai Chi is so much more than just a slow, relaxing form of movement.

Let’s take a look at the most gentle, flowing movement of the form. It’s called Wave Hands like Clouds and it really is everyone’s favorite move in the form because it is relaxing and easy to do. Here is a description of the movement and some pictures to help you understand it:

Start with the right arm and draw a clockwise circle, palm toward the face. It’s as if you are wiping your eyebrows gently. Then draw a counter-clockwise circle with the left arm keeping the palm toward the face again. Then try putting it together by starting with the right arm and as the right arm reaches the bottom half of the circle, start the left arm. Keep the hands loose and light. After you have mastered the arm movement, you can add the footwork. You will always step left with Wave Hands like Clouds. Begin by bringing the left hand down towards your body into its counter-clockwise motion. As you begin to move the left hand, adjust the left foot so the toes point forward and you are ready to step to your left. Continue your arm movements as you step in with right foot and then out

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How are you helping your clients in their everyday life with this movement? There are several things happening with Wave Hands like Clouds.

The first thing we talk about is proper posture. In Tai Chi, we talk about three columns in the body. There is one column that runs down the center of the body and one column through each shoulder to each hip. Obviously, the center column is just anterior to our spinal column. The goal in Tai Chi is to not break the columns, but rather to keep the columns intact. This proper alignment allows the body to remain in a relaxed posture that most of our population struggles with.

As you step left with Wave Hands like Clouds, you must learn to shift your weight completely over to the right column in order to move your left foot and maintain your columns. Then you must shift your weight completely over to the left column to move your right foot over to your left. You must maintain an upright and relaxed position throughout the core. In other words, you can’t focus on the movement of the arms and lean to the left with your shoulders as you step left. This focus on maintaining the integrity through the core region is new and challenging to many of our clients.

You are also supposed to rotate your upper body with Wave Hands like Clouds. Many people have lost the ability to rotate through their thoracic region. Years of poor posture, sedentary lifestyles and sitting too much have caused this range of motion loss. With Wave Hands like Clouds, we are re-teaching people to utilize trunk rotation. Going back to the columns, we teach our clients to rotate around their central column or axis. It’s amazing how challenging this can be for your clients! They struggle with the dissociation of trunk and hips, but with Wave Hands like Clouds, their focus is on getting the movement correct. Sometimes as trainers, we get too technical with our clients and that frustrates them. They don’t care about thoracic mobility and dissociation. It’s confusing and not something they are interested in. Of course, we are interested in it because it’s our life’s work to study the functioning of the body. But our clients are often turned off by too much technical lingo. So as you teach Tai Chi, your clients are getting the benefits, but they are focusing on learning a movement and are interested in it because it helps them do the form better.

Wave Hands like Clouds will also challenge your clients to improve their breathing. People often struggle with incorporating deep, relaxing breathing because they have gotten into the habit of shallow, quick breathing. Again, poor posture has a lot to do with this. Because breath control is a very important part of Tai Chi, people must work on expanding their capacity beyond the short, shallow pattern they have developed in their everyday lives. There are two breathing patterns with the Wave Hands like Clouds movement. One can breathe in as the left hand creates its circle and then breathe out as the right hand creates its circle. In Tai Chi, we talk about breathing as being long, slow, continuous and deep. This challenges many students! The other breathing pattern is a step harder than the first one. One breathes in during both the left and right circle and then breathes out during the next cycle of left and right circles. This pattern is very difficult and requires immense control. But again, your clients have the opportunity to work on increasing their lung capacity without actually thinking about the technical side of how they are helping their bodies.

All of these concepts of columns, rotation and breathing are actually part of learning to focus on relaxation in Tai Chi, as well. Yes, Tai Chi is slow and relaxing movements. My definition of Tai Chi is this: Tai Chi is a martial art that utilizes gentle, flowing movements to enhance health in the body and the mind. Our society is chronically stressed these days and learning to relax is actually an important part of healing the body. Chronic stress causes inflammation throughout the body and inflammation is instrumental in causing many lifestyle diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. It is critical that we give our clients a form of exercise that actually teaches their bodies to relax and doesn’t add additional stress. Tai Chi is that perfect form of exercise that provides a balance to our clients’ stressful lives.

Want to Learn More? Click HERE for your FREE Tai Chi mini-course!

Dianne Bailey is an experienced martial artist and Tai Chi instructor. She created the Open The Door to Tai Chi certification program so that more fitness professionals can quickly and easily learn how to integrate Tai Chi into their exercise programs to improve balance, strength and cognition with their older clients.

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Geroplasticity: A Concept Whose Time Has Come

Search the term “geroplasticity” in Google and the only result you are likely to find is this blog post.  I know because I have searched for this term several times over the past few months and have never gotten even one result.  It is time we changed that and made “geroplasticity” a normal part of our professional conversation regarding exercise training for mature adults.

I am sure you are familiar with the term “neuroplasticity” which refers to the process in which your brain’s neural synapses and pathways are altered as an effect of environmental, behavioral, and neural changes.  The growing evidence from neuroscience research has shown that even in advanced old age the bring maintains its ability to get better.  The old saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is unequivocally wrong.

Training the Brain

Geroplasticity (aka aging plasticity) refers to the body’s ability to continue to adapt and grow in late life as an effect of environmental and behavioral changes.  It is why we do what we do so effectively.  The body is able to positively respond to healthy behavioral stimuli such as exercise and nutrition even in advanced old age.  The old adage “it’s never too late” is certainly true in this regard.

Study after study consistently proves that the aging body is still a resilient body.  The biological process of aging marches on BUT most of the physical declines we experience – loss of muscle mass and bone density, disrupted metabolism, etc. – are due to the accumulation of behaviors  and choices that we make every single day (an accumulation effect more so than an aging effect).

Of course, some physiological systems are much more responsive to behavioral stimuli (e.g. exercise).  I’m no expert in all systems but I wouldn’t think our hair, auditory or integumentary (skin) systems are really “trainable”.  The good news is that the neuromuscular and balance systems are highly responsive to exercise.  Even people in their 90’s and 100’s can get stronger, faster, more powerful and have better balance (just to name a few) as a result of proper exercise training.

The concept of specificity states that these systems respond according to the manner in which they are trained.  Or, as I like to say, “how you train is how you gain”.  This same concept applies to the older adult as well.  Just as the brain responds better to different types of stimuli so does the rest of the body’s systems.  It is why the approach of the Functional Aging Training Model is to address each of the primary “functional” systems within a training program for mature adults.  It is the best way to take advantage of the concept of geroplasticity and to get the most out of your training efforts.

It is also a great way to become a Category of One Business.  Using new, intriguing terminology like geroplasticity is a great way to communicate to potential clients that you are different.  It allows you to defy comparison and make competitors irrelevant.  You aren’t just a personal trainer you are a Functional Aging Specialist.  Your training doesn’t just make clients fitter it harnesses the power of geroplasticity to improve functional ability and performance at any age.  The aging Boomers are attracted to professionals who are the best at helping them.  They always want to know What’s In It For Me (WIIFM) even if they don’t verbalize it.

Maybe we should change our name to the Institute of Geroplasticity (okay, maybe not).

Cody Sipe, PhD; Geroplasticity Expert:)

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