Tai Chi and Qigong (chee-kung) combine simple, graceful movements and meditation. They are exercises believed to have positive, relaxing effects on a person’s mind, body and spirit.
In two studies, researchers at the University of Illinois found that healthy seniors who practiced a combination of Qigong and Tai Chi three times a week for six months experienced significant physical benefits after only two months. . .
Not only did participants demonstrate noticeable improvements in laboratory-controlled tests designed to measure balance and lower body strength, the qualitative study provided dramatic evidence of how regular sessions of Tai Chi and Qigong also enhanced individuals’ mental, emotional and spiritual perspective.
"Seniors said, ‘Now I can put my socks and jeans on just like I always used to, standing up instead of sitting down,’ " said Yang Yang, a kinesiology professor and Tai Chi master with three decades of experience, who published the results of the studies as his doctoral dissertation. Yang said a woman noted that she had reduced the number of strokes required to swim across the pool — from 20 to between 11 and 14. Another said she was more confident of her ability to climb the stairs to her attic.
Other evidence pointed to improvements in sleep quality, concentration, memory, self-esteem and overall energy levels with regular sessions of Tai Chi and Qigong.
Positive statements by participants revealed how they generally felt better mentally and physically:
• "I have the sense that I’m not going to go downhill nearly as quickly as I might have. It’s a very positive way to feel."
• "I feel more upbeat … more optimistic … more hopeful. I upped my lifespan from 80 to 100."
• "You don’t think about 70-year-olds learning new things they can carry on … this is so unexpected. This has made me feel much younger … much younger, let’s say, 10 years. Someone who hasn’t done this has no comprehension about how much better it has made me feel."
The quantitative study included 39 participants and a control group of 29; the average age of participants was 80. Each was given a battery of physical performance tests in the beginning as a baseline, then again after two-month and six-month intervals.
The researchers used a number of standard physical-activity measurements, among them, the single leg stand, or SLS. The SLS measures the length of time an individual can stand on one leg, with eyes closed and eyes open.
"With eyes open, we saw an 83 percent improvement after two months," Yang said. "With eyes closed, we did not see results — 29 percent improvement — until the end of six months. But when you see how it translates to functional performance … how meaningful it is to their daily life — putting on jeans, taking groceries out, even the posture you have when you hold your grandchildren — the results are significant."
"At present, Yang is the only one who has been putting those two things — the quantitative and the qualitative — together," said kinesiology and psychology professor Karl Rosengren, Yang’s Ph.D. adviser and contributing author of the U. of I. studies. "Usually they are not seen together in the same research."
"It is also the first Tai Chi RCT to evaluate potential sensory organization improvements in elderly practitioners, to evaluate whether balance and strength improvements are significant predictors of a laboratory loss of balance measures, and to evaluate stance width as a possible learned strategic mechanism for improved postural stability," Yang said.
Also telling, he said, is the strong desire among study participants to continue practicing Tai Chi and Qigong beyond the bounds of the research.
Rosengren said the U. of I. research team plans to continue studying the links between Tai Chi and Qigong and the benefits of their practice for older adults.
Yang is also the director of the Center for Taiji Studies and the author of the book Taijiquan: The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power (Zhenwu Publications)