Consider encouraging your patients to practice tai chi to reduce feelings of anxiety and promote relaxation.
Lifelong Learning in Clinical Excellence | December 13, 2022 | 3 min read
By Ken Koon Wong, MD, Cleveland Clinic
As we age, our bodies go through changes that can impact our ability to maintain balance, strength, and agility. My father told me, “Invest in yourself now for ease when you’re older.” I knew what he meant at the time but didn’t appreciate it until a few years later. He’s a Tai chi practitioner, and I was into other martial arts with fancy forms and kicks.
But about four years ago, I witnessed an event that brought me closer to understanding what my father meant. I’d gone hiking with my family and noticed that an older man had to squat down to tie his shoes and couldn’t get up without assistance. This got me looking for a daily routine that could preserve or delay one’s diminishing ability to get up or keep our balance as we age. Since then, I’ve incorporated Tai chi into my daily routine and promoted this exercise to my older patients.
Tai chi is a form of martial arts that emphasizes slow, graceful, intentional, and controlled movements. It can help to improve balance, coordination, overall strength, and agility. In addition, the synchronous breathing associated with Tai chi can also help to develop lung and cardiovascular equilibrium, both of which are important for maintaining general mental and physical well-being.
Studies have found that Tai chi may also help to enhance sleep quality, reduce pain, improve the overall quality of life for people with fibromyalgia, and decrease the risk of falls in older adults. Practicing Tai chi has helped me to be more aware of the appropriate movements of my joints. For example, I know that my knees should only flex or extend and that any rotation of my legs should come from my hips. This experiential knowledge has helped me to maneuver more mindfully from one place to another.
Another positive impact that practicing Tai chi had was improving my spine health. I’ve noticed that it’s helped me be more thoughtful when picking things up from the floor or rotating my spine. Tai Chi has helped to improve my posture and alignment, which has helped reduce the strain on my lower spine. I believe that most common injuries stem from the involvement of a combination of multiple joint movements. Practicing Tai chi, which emphasizes moving as a unit with awareness of the functionality and role of each joint, helped a great deal with mindful and controlled movement, which in turn minimizes common injuries. I believe that if one practices this at a younger age, their joint health will be better preserved as they age.
An anxious patient with hypertension once asked me if there was a relaxation technique that I recommended. Drawing from Tai chi, I shared with her a simple method of relaxing our shoulders. First, we sit straight and comfortably on a chair without back support. Next, we let our shoulders go limp while maintaining a straight spine. Next, we imagine our shoulder joints relaxing further down to our hip joints. I often notice that patients can further relax their shoulders during the last exercise. This means that the technique made sure the residual tension of the shoulders dissipated. By repeating this process a few times, the patient’s anxiety began to dissolve, and she reported feeling more relaxed. This simple relaxation technique can be beneficial for anyone who is experiencing anxiety or stress. We often don’t realize that we hold a lot of tension in our bodies in our neck, shoulders, back, and pelvic region until exercises like these reveal our residual stress.
So, if you are looking for a way to help preserve your ability to stay active and independent as you age, consider adding Tai chi to your daily routine. You may be surprised at how much of a difference it can make.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.