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.