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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution-----Friday, July 10, 2009

By Sharise M. Darby


Chinese martial art soothes arthritis pain with slow movements.

Last year, after running for 30 years and in 19 Peachtree Road Races, Chris Lahowitch heard her doctors say she had to give it up for good. Her arthritic knees couldn’t take it.

Even in the midst of discouragement, Lahowitch, a 63-year-old psychotherapist from Decatur, was determined to find an alternative exercise method. That’s when she discovered tai chi, a Chinese martial art that focuses on fluid motion and meditation. Lahowitch enrolled in tai chi classes in January and immediately started experiencing less pain in her knees.

“It was like a miracle,” she said. “I took tai chi with the intention of substituting running, and after only six months it actually helped me start running again.”

Dr. Patience White, chief public health officer with the national Arthritis Foundation and a practicing rheumatologist, said success stories like this are common. Tai chi is beneficial, White said, because it does both things required to diminish pain —- stretches and strengthening all the muscles around the joints.

“I recommend it all the time,” she said. “As a doctor, you want to recommend something to people that you know is evidence-based. It has been studied and shown to be beneficial to people with arthritis and not harm them.”

In a study released in June by the George Institute for International Health in Australia, researchers found tai chi to have positive health benefits for those with musculoskeletal pain. Most participants enrolled in a 12-week class, and reported their level of pain and disability after completing the program. The results suggested that tai chi reduced pain and disability.

“This research should reassure people with musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis to seek exercise to relieve the pain,” said Amanda Hall, an author of the study. “The fact that tai chi is inexpensive, convenient, enjoyable and conveys other psychological and social benefits supports the use of this type of intervention for pain conditions.”...

Cate Morrill, a tai chi instructor in Atlanta, says nearly half her students attend classes because they have arthritis or joint pain. Morrill is the director of Rising Phoenix Tai Chi studio, and she also teaches physical therapy doctoral candidates at Emory University how to use tai chi in their physical therapy practice.

“We move them slowly and smoothly,” she said. “This pumps and creates synovial fluid. It lubricates the joints like oil lubricates a car.”

Lahowitch attends Morrill’s class on Thursday evenings and practices every day at home. Lahowitch said that before she became involved in the art of tai chi she tried yoga and physical therapy, but neither helped as much. She said she enjoys tai chi because it focuses on the pain in her knees and it manifests the “chi,” or life energy, in her body.

“I’ve seen an incredible change. … I didn’t expect it,” she said. “I might even run a marathon.”

Lahowitch had decided to run in last Saturday’s Peachtree Road Race before suddenly coming down with bronchitis. But, she plans to continue tai chi and running, and she hopes to start training for next year’s road race soon.

“I am going to get my 20th T-shirt if it kills me,” she said.

Chris studies at Rising Phoenix Tai Chi studio!


Tai chi has given 80-year-old Marianne Padgett a strong, steady stride and something more.
A car crash in June 2003 left her with injuries that forced her to give up work as a therapist and other activities she loved. Because of lingering balance problems, some days she wouldn't get out of bed for fear she'd slip and fall.
About a year ago, Padgett, who lives in Atlanta, started to take tai chi, a Chinese martial arts form, which had been modified to help seniors improve their balance. She found that the gentle exercise helped steady her movements.

Now she can walk to the mail center in her apartment complex or to the local shopping mall without a cane or walker. She's driving again. And she volunteers at church as a lay minister. "Tai chi gives you the freedom to do whatever you need to do," she says.

Freedom: That's something most of us take for granted every day. But seniors will tell you just how important that freedom is. Tai chi has given Padgett the confidence to go about her daily activities without the paralyzing fear that she's one step away from a bad fall.

Research shows that tai chi can help strengthen muscles and helps keep older people more agile. But the studies also show that other types of exercise, even a daily walk, can help improve balance and overall fitness — and might help reduce the risk that an elderly person will take a spill.

Falls are dangerous, deadly

Falls can be dangerous at any age, but an older person who slips runs the risk of serious injury. The latest analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than 13,700 older Americans died from falls in 2003. "Falls are the leading cause of injury death among the elderly," says Neil Alexander, a balance researcher at the University of Michigan.

William Haskell, a fitness researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and his colleagues recruited 424 frail seniors ages 70 to 89. Half the recruits were told to walk five days a week for 30 minutes at a moderate pace. Seniors in that group also did stretches and got some weight training. The rest of the seniors just got advice on how to live a healthier life.

After a year, the workout group scored significantly better on tests of overall fitness, balance and the ability to easily manage a quarter-mile walk.

"If you can't walk a quarter of a mile, it's unlikely you'll be able to go to the grocery store," Haskell says. Seniors who have trouble with such basic tasks are at risk of losing their independence, he adds.

Balance problems can be traced to an injury or, in many cases, the aging process itself, Haskell says. People start to lose muscle in mid-life — a process that worsens with each passing year. Seniors who don't work out can lose even more muscle, and by age 75 they're unsteady and prone to falls.

Once older people develop balance problems, they start to avoid activities that require a lot of walking, Alexander says. That can set up a cycle of inactivity, muscle weakness and more unsteadiness down the line, he says.

To interrupt the cycle, Alexander and his colleagues offered a fitness program to 162 at-risk seniors. Half the group got training in tai chi, which had been modified to help unsteady seniors. The other recruits took a specialized balance class that focused on increasing step length and speed. The seniors performed several tests at the beginning and the end of the study, including one in which they were timed while standing on one foot and another in which they had to step rapidly.

After 10 weeks, the team found that people in both groups had improved, but those in the balance program did slightly better. The study appears in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Both tai chi and the specialized exercise class helped seniors step quickly and surely — and that might help them avoid falls, Alexander says. "These programs both work."

Which one is better? The researchers don't know yet, but many previous studies have shown that tai chi's slow rotational movements may help improve balance. For example:

•A 1996 study showed that seniors who did tai chi reduced their risk of falling by nearly half.

•A 2006 study reported in the Journal of Gerontology by Steven Wolf at the Emory University School of Medicine showed that tai chi significantly improved balance in more than 300 older people.

Results aren't instant

Tai chi is especially good at improving an unsteady walk, because the movements often require a weight shift, Wolf says. He says it takes three months of tai chi for someone who is really frail to regain strength and flexibility. "In Western medicine, we expect instant results," he says. "But that's not what happens here."

Cate Morrill, an instructor at Rising Phoenix T'ai Chi, a tai chi studio in Atlanta, says she has worked with older people who can't stand without holding onto a chair for support. After three months in class, they often can go through the basic tai chi routine with fluid, strong and steady movements.

The Chinese think that tai chi, when practiced regularly, helps the mind as well as the body. Padgett says the practice has helped clear away the brain fog that made it hard for her to balance her checkbook after the 2003 car accident.

But best of all, Padgett says, tai chi has given her, if not a swagger, at least a better way of walking firmly through the world: "I have my confidence back."

Mary Ann studies with Harvey Meisner of Rising Phoenix T'ai Chi!


Atlanta Journal Constitution----March 9, 2004
by Bo Emerson

Healthy Living: The gentle power of tai chi
Training called 'most potent intervention' for improving balance of the elderly

Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight;
Empty and be full ...
Soft and weak overcome hard and strong.
-- Laotzu, Tao Te Ching

In the basement of a rehabbed elementary school, a group of men and women is swimming through invisible Jell-O.
Engaged in a slow-motion tango to the music of koto and flute, their arms move in unison, their palms cradling spheres of unseen energy.
"Now sweep your hands down, just as if you're brushing a peacock's tail," says leader Cate Morrill, and her flock follows suit, bending like grain in a steady breeze.

These students, many approaching retirement age, are practicing tai chi, an ancient discipline with some contemporary applications.

Researchers at
Emory University recently demonstrated that training in tai chi can reduce falls in the elderly by up to 40 percent.
Published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Association, the study examined 300 participants ages 70 to 97, all identified as "transitioning to frail," and prone to falls.
In an earlier study of more robust older subjects, the improvement in balance was even more dramatic, reducing falls by nearly a half. Tai chi beat out weight training, balance training, aerobics and stretching.

"When all was said and done, it turned out to be the most potent intervention in the country," said Dr. Steven Wolf, co-director of Emory's Center for Research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Neurodegenerative Diseases.

These are heady discoveries for an exotic discipline that is dedicated to the manipulation of an energy force called "chi" that scientists have yet to prove exists.
Considered a "soft" or "internal" art, tai chi is a descendant of the Chinese martial arts. It grew up in the same mountainous Wudang region that gave us the magical martial arts movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
While Westerners are familiar with some uses of the martial arts (beating up on bad guys, for example), adherents also pursue the exercises to promote health and long life. Tai chi has grown to concentrate on these "healing" effects, though the self-defense roots can still be glimpsed within such moves as "wave hands like clouds."

Each movement draws from natural imagery, giving rise to such gestures as "crow cleans its beak," and "parting the wild horse's mane."

There are at least five varieties of tai chi, but in the form familiar to most Americans the gestures are large, slow and flowing as the practitioner drifts from one posture to the next, breathing deeply, in what looks like meditation in motion.

body really knows" how many people in the United States practice tai chi, says Marvin Smalheiser, publisher of T'ai Chi Magazine. Smalheiser's magazine has 50,000 subscribers, but he suspects there are "hundreds of thousands" who do at least some tai chi every year.

Susan Ross, 61, a retired Delta information technologist, says she began practicing tai chi (and its even slower relative, qi gong) four years ago when classes were offered at her
North Atlanta apartment. She discovered that she was sleeping better, her blood pressure went down, and she was cutting back on the many medications she took for autoimmune problems.
Now she helps stage seminars featuring tai chi master Yun Xiang Tseng, a Taoist priest from the Wudang area who relocated to
Long Island, N.Y., in 1992.
Master Chen, as he is addressed by his students, was in
Atlanta over the weekend and led several classes. "It's a mission," he said before a Saturday class at the Atlanta School of Massage. "It should be shared equally with the world."

The gentle moves and unhurried pace are ideal for those with creaky knees and stiff joints. Seniors and those who work with the elderly are catching on to tai chi's promise. When Wolf first studied tai chi, in the early 1990s, "no one knew what it was." Now many retirement homes and elder centers have their own teachers.
Residents at
Wesley Woods Towers have had the opportunity to take classes for 12 years. The Rev. Roy Reese, 98, a retired Methodist minister, is an enthusiastic participant.
"I really attribute some of my longer life to that," said Reese, who rehearses a
bout 15 minutes every day. He practices most of the moves from a sitting position. But his wife, Bettye Porter Reese, says the discipline has improved his equilibrium and control.
Beyond the physical benefits, the exercises also can help provide a mental and psychological
Tracy Adams, the fitness coordinator at Clairmont Oaks retirement community in
Decatur, said the confidence gained by those who take classes can be invaluable.
"I had a resident who took part in the study at Emory, and her turnaround was incredible," says
. "Her outlook has improved, she looks great, she feels great. It's made a difference in her life, not just physically, but psychologically. When people feel confident in their ability to walk down the street, it just makes life better."
The elderly have good reason to be afraid of falling. Among those over age 80 who fall and sustain hip fractures, half will be dead within a year, says Wolf. Falls are the seventh leading cause of death for all adults over 65.
Those with Parkinson's disease are particularly at risk for falling as their motor control declines.
Wolf and Dr. Jorge L. Juncos are at the end of a three-year study of the effect of tai chi, qi gong and aerobic training on Parkinson's patients.
In a "Western vs. Eastern" test, Juncos, associate professor of neurology at Emory, hopes to determine whether the mental training of tai chi and qi gong will be equivalent to the "huffing and puffing" of a more physical regimen.
Falling was once a problem for Jennie Caine, 56, not because of anything other than clumsiness, she says. The dental office manager has tumbled everywhere from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to her own living room.
Now she and her husband, Bob, have taken a
bout six weeks of classes with Cate Morrill, and Jennie Caine
says she feels a difference. "I can actually balance, where I can stand on one foot."
Morrill, 48, has worked with Wolf and Juncos in their studies of tai chi, Parkinson's and the elderly. Her patient repetitions and soothing voice proved perfect for the task, says Juncos, and the question for studies elsewhere is, "Can we do this without

Morrill likes incorporating tai chi moves as a component of everyday life. Hence, she suggests interpreting "wind blows the lotus leaves" this way: "You pick up the pot from the sink, you turn and put it on the stove."


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