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Tai Chi for Me?

Tips for gentle strength building & stress reduction

If you were to walk through your local park early in the morning, you might see a group of people or individuals moving slowly, doing a concentrated dance of sorts, with large, practiced steps and sweeping arm movements. They’re doing tai chi, an ancient Chinese martial art that is often taught in places like community centers and fitness studios, or via fitness DVDs.

Some studies suggest that tai chi may be effective at improving muscle strength, balance and the body’s capacity for exercise. The body’s muscles get a workout with minimal impact to the joints, which may increase strength and flexibility. At the same time, the movements are slow and quite specific and tai chi may also increase coordination and balance.

Dr. Paul Lam, MD, director of the Tai Chi for Health Institute, is an advocate for this low-impact form of exercise.

“Tai chi encourages mental relaxation and reduces stress,” says Dr. Lam.

Because tai chi is relatively easy on the body, it may be a good choice for people of different ability levels, even some who haven’t exercised in years. (Be sure and talk with your diabetes care team before starting any fitness routine.) Daily practice is ideal but three to four times a week can be enough to make a difference, says Dr. Lam.

Eventually, you may feel comfortable practicing on your own, like those early morning exercisers in the park. But getting there means learning the moves, which usually requires following an instructor. Look for a class in your community. Books with descriptions and photos can be helpful, as well as DVDs.

To get a sense of how you’ll move your body in a typical tai chi lesson, try the following exercise on your own. Take care to inhale as you lift your arms, and exhale while lowering them. (Traditional tai chi exercises are more specific than the instruction below, which has been simplified.)

Separating Clouds: Picture lifting a cloud, then separating it by pushing both halves away from you in opposite directions. Stand with feet apart at about shoulder-width. Cross your hands in front of your hips, palms facing body, “scooping up” the cloud. Bend elbows and raise arms overhead, flipping palms forward when at about chest height. Slowly push arms out to the sides, flexing wrists and bending knees while crossing hands back down in front of hips in a single, fluid gesture. Repeat, slowly, about 6 times.

Keep in mind that while tai chi is low-impact and generally safe, you should consult your health care team before trying tai chi. Modification or avoidance of certain postures may be recommended.

Jessica Cassity is a health reporter for SELF, Fitness, and Shape magazines, and the author of Better Each Day: 365 Expert Tips for a Healthier, Happier You. She is a Portland-based Pilates and yoga teacher, and blogs at thehappyandhealthyblog.com. Cassity is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

© 2015 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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