Tai Chi for Physical Health
The numbers are staggering – one in five – as to how many of us suffer from back pain. In a recent worldwide, back pain is the cause which most often disables us from enjoying daily living while causing many of our work absences too. As we age, the poor postures, weak core muscles, and poor use of our bodies or what we call biomechanics catch up with us.
Medication provides temporary relief from back pain while prevention and true relief from lower back pain means we need to be more aware of how we use our body and strengthening our core muscles.Tai chi is low impact, slower in motion and pain free exercise with huge gains in strengthening the stabilizer muscles of our body’s core as reported in Harvard Health Publications.
When we understand the typical reasons for back pain, we can avoid back muscle strains by strengthening our bodies so these maneuvers are less likely to affect us.
Tai Chi Movements Reinforce Proper Posture and Support for the Spine
You may be practicing poor standing or sitting habits which lead to poor posture. Do you stand or sit with rounded shoulders, stand with your gut sticking out, slouch when sitting, lean on one leg while standing, stick your chin forward when typing at a computer? Having any of these and other poor postures causes overuse of some muscles and under use of other muscles.
To return our bodies to proper alignment again, we need to strengthen the muscles weakened by poor posture which are typically the stabilizer muscles of the body. In tai chi, alignment and posture is fundamental to every movement. Maintaining the 5 bows structure in our body is one of the key requirements throughout all the movements. The 5 Bows structure is something each person works to maintain not only when standing still but through a wide variety of motions. By doing this we re-train our body for proper posture through a spectrum of movements and poses which allows these new found postural habits to carry over into our daily lives.
Tai Chi is a Core Work Out for the Stabilizer Muscles
The 5 Bows structure creates a gentle stretch of our core muscles as well as joints of the vertebrae or spine.Stretching and strengthening core muscles is necessary for a healthy and happy spine. Tai chi engages and demands a wide range of muscles to sustain, extend and contract through a wide range of open and closed body positions. Unlike power muscles, core / stabilizer muscles don’t need to be bulked up with heavy weights used to isolate a specific muscle. Instead, they need to be challenged in a wide range of positions as a group of muscles.
This is exactly why the slow sustained motions of tai chi are so effective not only for working out our stabilizing core muscles but for burning many calories by using multiple muscles and muscle groups simultaneously.
Practice with Proper Techniques to Avoid Back Injuries
Many back injuries or strains are caused by bending our backs and then twisting, or bending our backs and then lifting. The core muscle work out of tai chi improves the strength of not only core but the lower body muscle groups as well so that we are better able to bend or rotate appropriately at the pelvis instead of twisting or hyper-extending the back.
The 5 Bows structure maintains our strength, eliminates stress on our joints or vertebrae while engaging the many stabilizer muscles. By training our bodies to leverage the full support of core muscles, we’re able to avoid many back injuries and live pain free.
Mindfulness & Body Awareness Engages the Body Purposefully
Very often we hurt our backs doing something simple because we are not paying attention to what we’re doing. Tai chi practice trains our minds to focus on movement. Our balance improves, our footwork increases in sensitivity and our muscles become ingrained with new movement patterns due to slower sustained motions which culminate in deep learning results.
Not only is focusing in on our bodies and letting go of our daily stresses great for our mental health but unconsciously, our mind and body become more consciously connected when we move in a highly conscious and purposeful way. After a while, whether we think about it or not, our bodies will use these new connections and patterns unconsciously during daily routines.
Harvard Medical lists tai chi as one of the top exercises for improving balance and proprioception. Proprioception is the awareness of our body in space. Awareness is key to avoiding falls and unwanted twists or turns to our back muscles.
Choose Sustained Lower Intensity Exercise to Improve Core Muscles
Many people remain physically inactive for long periods of time and then engage in sudden bursts of workout. While there may be some value in power burst work outs for weight loss, regular exercise is best for overall health.
When we’ve been sedentary for long periods of time, burst work outs can be a recipe for injuries and muscle strains. Weak or disengaged core muscles can result in back pain from these sudden bursts of physical activity. If you want to engage in burst workouts, start by assuring your body is fit enough to engage in sudden and intense work outs. A good tai chi routine of practicing 2 or 3 times a week is a great basic fitness program or cross-training program for athletes who regularly participate in powerful and highly explosive sports.
It may not provide the burn of a weight training session or an aerobic workout, but after a few weeks, you’ll wonder where you got the sudden burst of power with the same old training program or daily routines.
How does tai chi help to prevent further back pain?
Let’s review the typical core muscles. They include our diaphragm, pelvic muscles, lower abdominal muscle as well as our small spine muscles. These are not the muscles we think of when we think of working out to get stronger which is why improving our core strength is somewhat elusive for many of us.
Tai chi involves relaxation of the abdominal muscles which promotes deep, natural breathing to strengthen the diaphragm; focus on initiating movement from our core known as dan tian in tai chi which strengthens abdominal and pelvic floor muscles; and finally, movements which reach up, down, and rotate around the centre axis to stretch and strengthen our small spine muscles in all directions.
With a regular tai chi work out, gain stretch and strength to avoid injuries and relieve back pain, build body awareness as well as improved body mechanics so daily routines remain enjoyable, relaxing and injury free. Tai chi is undoubtedly one of the best exercises for prevention and relief of back pain.
Strengthen and Protect Knee Joints with Tai Chi
Many of us suffer with knee pain, whether due to injury or aging. Poor alignment of the spine, hips and feet also contribute to knee pain. When dealing with joint pain, our first thought is usually to rest the joint. While immobilization may be useful immediately following an injury, the truth is that a lack of mobility puts the joint at risk of sustaining greater damage.
It seems counterintuitive. Yet, in a randomized, clinical trial, scientists discovered that structured, moderate-intensity exercise significantly reduced mobility issues among older, sedentary adults. Continued movement proved to be essential for maintaining healthy joints with a full range of motion. When it comes to our joints-including the knee-we must keep them moving or risk compromising range of motion.
What if you are currently dealing with stiff, sore knees? Is movement advised in such instances? In a word, yes. The typical, sedentary lifestyle creates weak, atrophied muscles. This muscle imbalance contributes to knee and back pain. Movement helps restore joint health, strengthens the surrounding muscles which support joints and extends range of motion. Regular movement helps prevent muscle contractures-tightened or shortened muscles which cause stiffness in the joints.
If you’re already suffering with knee pain, you must be mindful about the type of movement you choose. Gentle, low-impact movements, like those used in tai chi, can be therapeutic.
Low Impact Movement is Essential to Good Knee Health
Why is movement superior to immobilization when it comes to treating sore joints? Compression of the joints releases synovial fluid which lubricates the joints, allowing them to glide more easily.
High-impact movements-like jumping-release beneficial synovial fluid, but also put stress on knee and ankle joints. Conversely, slow, low-impact tai chi movements compress the joints, releasing essential synovial fluid and sending much-needed nutrition to the joints, without putting undue stress on them. This makes tai chi a highly-accessible form of exercise that one can adopt even at a very advanced age.
Protect Joints by Strengthening Supporting Muscles
Muscle imbalance is the root of posture and joint problems. Weakened muscles, poor body mechanics and other imbalances in the body strain joints and muscles. Tai chi combats muscle imbalances with its focus on correct posture and proper alignment of the body during each movement. This protects the joints by strengthening weak supporting muscles.
Tai chi is a weight-bearing exercise. Body weight is slowly shifted from one leg to the other, strengthening and toning thigh muscles. As we move, we focus on the proper alignment of the spine and the placement of the hips, knees and feet. Our balance improves, reducing the likeliness of stumbles or falls which can lead to knee injuries.
A continued tai chi practice increases awareness of body placement as we move throughout the day. More conscious of the importance of proper alignment of the hips and spine, we give more thought to how we stand, walk and sit. Bad postural habits like slouching are corrected. Improved biomechanics helps prevent injuries to the knees, hips and back.
Alleviate Knee Pain with Tai Chi
The knees are fragile joints which take a lot of abuse during our lifetimes. No wonder osteoarthritis of the knee is one of the most common complaints once we reach middle age. In addition to improving knee health and function, tai chi increases mind/body awareness, which helps alleviate knee pain. According to a recent study of patients suffering with knee osteoarthritis that was conducted by researchers at Tufts School of Medicine, patients who followed a 12-week tai chi program derived the same pain relief benefits as those who took physical therapy for six weeks and exercised at home for another six weeks. The benefits were long-lasting-still in effect a year after the study began.
Compared to the costs of physical therapy, tai chi is a far more economical option for alleviating knee pain. The study concluded, “Standardized tai chi should be considered as an effective therapeutic option for knee osteoarthritis.” However, a reduction in knee pain was only one of the benefits the study’s tai chi participants derived from their practice. The tai chi group also experienced a higher quality of life and a sharper reduction in depression symptoms.
Protect Your Knee Joints During Tai Chi Practice
Some may be surprised to learn that tai chi improves knee health and function. The deep, bent knee leg stances make some people fearful that tai chi may be hard on the knees. The truth is any exercise may potentially cause knee pain, if not performed properly. Tai chi is no exception.
The key to experiencing the many benefits of tai chi without injuring the knees lies in proper alignment of the body during each stance. Knowledgeable tai chi instructors understand how critical proper alignment is for a safe, lifelong tai chi practice. An experienced tai chi instructor will begin by teaching you how to properly position your body during each movement.
Make slow, easy movements. The head should be in line with the shoulders. The shoulders should be above the hips. The hips should line up above the heels. Weight should be distributed evenly in the feet.
Don’t try to bend the knees too deeply when you first begin your practice. Start slowly with higher stances. As your joints and muscles become stronger, try progressively lower stances. You’ll be able to deepen your leg bends and hold them longer.
Each pose requires proper alignment of the spine and hips. An experienced tai chi instructor will demonstrate how to properly align the knees as you shift your weight. (See accompanying photos.) Proper alignment of the spine, hips and knees prevents undue stress on key supporting muscles. This alleviates stress which could injure the knee or aggravate an existing injury.
Focus on correct alignment as you learn each stance. Proper execution of each movement will become second nature. Conversely, bad habits, once established, take more effort to correct. If you find a move difficult or uncomfortable, consult with your instructor for tips on how to perform the move safely and properly at your current fitness level.
A lack of mobility weakens and shortens muscles, causing joints to stiffen. When executed correctly, gentle, weight-bearing movements like sitting, squatting and bending will stretch and strengthen thigh muscles, which support the knees. Movement increases synovial fluid in the joints, nourishing and lubricating them. The joints become more slippery and move more easily.
Tai chi-with its gentle, flowing, low-impact movements-can be an essential component in a fitness regimen designed to keep knees healthy and pain-free with a full range of motion. Try a tai chi class led by a knowledgeable, experienced instructor today to discover how tai chi can strengthen and protect your knees.