You have probably heard how practicing tai chi (pronounced tie-chee) can lower high blood pressure, reverse type 2 diabetes and arthritis, and strengthen the immune system, all of which obviously contribute to slowing down the aging of your body. However, the single most important thing the average person can do to slow down and even reverse the effects of aging is improve their breathing so we all should be practicing tai chi for health and vitality.
You can survive only a few minutes without breathing. In addition, if your brain gets insufficient oxygen, most other bodily and mental functions will be impaired. A large Framingham study over three generations showed that lung capacity is the main predictor of health and longevity. The average person begins losing lung capacity after they reach the age of 30 and by the age of 50, their lung capacity is halved from what they had in their youth. An inefficient respiratory system leads to lower endurance and quicker fatigue, as well as susceptibility to more respiratory diseases.
After they are born, babies breathe deeply, with their bellies. As children grow up, however, they tend to breathe higher in the chest and in a shallow manner, both of which are aggravated by stress. Breathing has profound effects on one’s health: Oxygen boosts the immune system and makes it hard for viruses and bacteria to grow in the body. In addition, over 70% of the body’s waste byproducts are eliminated through our breathing and our skin.
Deep breathing relaxes muscles. Chronically tense muscles cause pain, as in headaches and back aches. Even digestive problems can result from tense muscles. All of these problems make it hard to focus and concentrate. Because it uses both breathing and movement, tai chi is an excellent way to reduce stress, boost energy, and stretch, strengthen, and tone the body.
A two-year study found that people 65 and over who maintained a sedentary lifestyle lost lung capacity at twice the rate of a group that practiced tai chi. More recent studies have shown that tai chi can not only stop the decrease in lung capacity but also improve it!
Tai chi is actually a special subset of the Chinese breath and energy exercise called qigong (pronounced chee-gung). Tai chi employs deep breathing and mental focus along with movement and the practitioner thus learns to breathe more effectively. The deep breathing in tai chi, also known as belly breathing or dan tien breathing, uses the entire lungs and is similar to infant breathing. By learning to breathe this way rather than high into the chest, you also help the body rid itself of toxins that could lead to health issues.
The calmer breathing style taught by tai chi also gently works the muscles around the rib cage and lungs, strengthening the whole system. Tai chi’s slow, repetitive movements also opens up the meridians—the energy pathways of the human body—and sends energy (known by the Chinese as qi, pronounced chee) through the body to nourish the organs and cells and strengthen your immune system. Tai chi’s movements also help massage the organs and circulate the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain and the spine, flushing out cellular waste, creating new pathways in the brain and strengthening those already there.
In addition to increasing longevity through better breathing, tai chi decreases the risk of death by increasing flexibility, balance, and coordination. People who practice tai chi trip and fall far less than others. Practicing tai chi also brings about a heightened awareness of one’s body in the surrounding environment, a large factor in avoiding accidents. This is important, because fall-related injuries are one of the leading causes of death among older adults in the United States, with 20% of hip fracture patients entering the hospital never leaving. A large five-year study of middle-aged and elderly men in China showed that those who practiced tai chi had a 20% lower chance of dying during the study than those who did not.
The bottom line, however, is that any ongoing exercise program is probably good for us, but tai chi is proving itself in study after study to be not only safe and effective at any age, but also a simple way to make dramatic health changes. It requires no special clothing or equipment and can be practiced in a small space. As with any new exercise program, however, if you have concerns about your health, please check with your doctor. Chances are, they will be pleased with your new practice.
When you are ready to learn tai chi, there are several ways to go about it. For several reasons, it is best if you can find a local tai chi teacher or school in your area. However, if this is not possible at the moment, you can turn to the many videos, books, and online sources available, including authentic Chinese masters on Youtube.