Newswise — It's no longer an ancient Chinese secret. A University of Missouri-Columbia researcher is putting a new spin on an old exercise and the outcome has many benefits for frail older adults. The T'ai Chi Fundamentals program (TCF) takes the centuries-old martial arts exercise and transforms it into a useful tool for rehabilitation.

"Most exercise programs focus on exertion or vigorous, fast movements to achieve increased strength and endurance," said Sandy Matsuda, assistant professor of occupational therapy and one of just a handful of instructors nationwide to become certified in a new form of T'ai Chi. "T'ai Chi facilitates both strength and endurance through slow and relaxed movements."

The program is taught to seniors to improve their concentration and balance and to help prevent falls, a common problem in older adults. This simplified version of traditional forms of T'ai Chi is appropriate for people with arthritis, lower back pain, knee replacements and Parkinson's disease. Medical research has shown that regular practice of T'ai Chi enhances immune function, reduces stress and anxiety, reduces joint pain, and lowers blood pressure.

"A fall to an older person can be devastating," Matsuda said. "T'ai Chi puts an emphasis on balance and being aware of your center of gravity. A key principal of T'ai Chi is being aware of where your body is in the present moment. You actually have more control over your body if you can move mindfully and slowly."

The greatest benefits come from consistent practice of the T'ai Chi Fundamentals program. It is a good way to keep older people active in day-to-day activities and is gentle enough for people recovering from an injury.

"We don't tighten muscles, we relax them," Matsuda said. "We never go to extremes with movements because it is at the extreme where we are more likely to injure ourselves."

Matsuda believes classes will become available widely as people learn of T'ai Chi's benefits. She does not recommend learning the program from a video. T'ai Chi classes can be physically challenging and people can become discouraged, so it is important to find a teacher whose method of instruction suits each individual. TCF and an exercise program based on T'ai Chi principles are being taught to occupational therapy students at MU for use in nursing homes and as a pain management program.

Matsuda co-wrote an article on the T'ai Chi Fundamentals Program to be published in this month's Rehab Management Journal. Tricia Yu and Jill Johnson, a physical therapist, developed the program.

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Rehab Management Journal (Mar-2005)