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Research reinforces findings
that Chinese exercises benefit older adults
Mitchell, News Editor
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
| Visiting kinesiology professor Yang Yang leads a group
of residents of Clark Lindsey Village in Urbana in
Qigong and Taiji. Yang has 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.
work by researchers at the University of Illinois lends strength to
previous research documenting the health benefits of Qigong and Taiji
among older adults who practice these ancient Chinese martial-arts forms.
Qigong (chee-kung) and Taiji (tye-chee) – or Tai Chi, as it is
more commonly known in the U.S. – combine simple, graceful movements
and meditation. Qigong, which dates to the middle of the first millennium
B.C., is a series of integrated exercises believed to have positive,
relaxing effects on a person’s mind, body and spirit. Tai Chi
is a holistic form of exercise, and a type of Qigong that melds Chinese
philosophy with martial and healing arts.
"Traditional Tai Chi training includes Qigong, but most contemporary
Tai Chi researchers have omitted Qigong from their research," said
visiting kinesiology professor Yang Yang. "As a result, previous
researchers may not have documented all of the health benefits possible
from traditional Tai Chi training."
Yang, a Tai Chi master with three decades of experience, said Tai Chi
and Qigong are relatively simple, safe and inexpensive, and require
no props or special equipment, making them easily adaptable for practice
by healthy senior citizens.
In two studies – one quantitative, one qualitative – presented
recently at the North American Research Conference on Complementary
& Integrative Medicine, lead researcher Yang 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, lower body strength and stance width,
a subset of participants who contributed responses in the qualitative
study provided dramatic evidence of how Tai Chi and Qigong practice
had also enhanced their lives from a mental, emotional and spiritual
"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, 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
by L. Brian Stauffer
| Karl Rosengren was Yang’s Ph.D. adviser and
is a contributing author of the U. of I. studies
Other evidence pointed
to improvements in sleep quality, concentration, memory, self-esteem
and overall energy levels.
Other positive statements by participants regarding 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
• "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 smaller qualitative study
consisted of in-depth interviews with four of the exercise participants
described by Yang as "very enthusiastic about their Tai Chi and
"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."
Yang and Rosengren
said the quantitative study is the first, to their knowledge, to employ
a randomized control trial (RCT) designed with testers blind to group
allocation and to combine laboratory platform balance measures with
multiple measures of functional balance and physical performance.
"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
In real-world terms, improvements in these areas are believed to reduce
seniors’ risks of falling and suffering potentially catastrophic
Yang, who also is 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), said one of the facets of the
studies most interesting to him is how comments collected from the interviews
correlated with the quantitative data gathered in the lab.
For example, in assessing the effects of Tai Chi and Qigong practice
on participants, 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.
Numbers alone don’t tell the full story of the results, however,
"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."
Also telling, he said, is the strong desire among study participants
to continue practicing Tai Chi and Qigong beyond the bounds of the research.
"The program has demonstrated its sustainability at one of the
senior-living facility instruction sites, where an enthusiastic activities
director has continued classes and actually expanded participation since
the completion of the study, he said."
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.
"We plan to focus on trying to understand the mechanisms more,"
he said. "We’ll also try to investigate more closely the
effects of the expertise of the instructor by looking at other research
that’s been done and trying to get measures of expertise in training.
"One of the things I think gets lost in a lot of the Tai Chi research
is that the quality of the instructor matters. We’ve seen programs
where they don’t really care about that. They’ll have someone
who’s had six months of Tai Chi experience, and they think they
can teach Tai Chi.
"Having watched Yang and having seen videotapes of instructors
with minimal experience, there’s a huge difference," Rosengren
said. "It’s the wealth of knowledge he brings and the combination
of the science from the West and the traditions from the East that actually
bring together things in a very positive way."
Co-authors with Yang and Rosengren on the quantitative study include
Jay Verkuilen, Scott Grubisich and Michael Reed. Additional co-authors
on the qualitative study are Reed, Sharon DeCelle, Robert Schlagal and