Tai Chi & Immune Function

Slow & Steady
Tai chi, a good fit for all fitness levels, may improve immune function
by Rob Zukowski

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ome years ago, I recall walking through Madison Square Park in Manhattan and seeing a group of people gathered in the grass. Each was performing identical actions and moving at a slow, rhythmic self-pace. In the midst of the usual New York City hustle and bustle, they seemed peaceful and unaffected by their surroundings. I stayed and watched for a while and spoke to one of the group members when they were done. I learned that they were practicing Tai Chi.

I have found that the specific history of Tai Chi varies depending on where you do your research and who you talk to, but many will agree that the art is centuries-old, has origins in traditional Chinese medicine and deep roots in martial arts. While Tai Chi may have begun, in part, as a method of self-defense from external attacks, many people practice it today strictly for its health benefits—perhaps a method of internal defense? While more research is needed, and, I believe, warranted, there is evidence that suggests a variety of health benefits from practicing Tai Chi, many of which may be of some importance to people living with HIV/AIDS.

Some people say Tai Chi is like a combination of meditation and yoga. They refer to it as a moving meditation. It is a gentle, fluid, and graceful form of mind and body exercise that keeps the practitioner in constant motion. One of things that I most enjoy about Tai Chi is that while you are in constant motion, it is a low-impact practice and only places minimal stress on the joints and muscles. Generally, this makes it a feasible option for all fitness levels and ages at various stages of health. However, those with any medical conditions should consult their doctor before getting underway. Each Tai Chi posture and movement eases gracefully into the next without pause. It is precise movement and is done along with focused, deep breathing. There are a variety of different Tai Chi styles and there are variations within each style. Some, may be more focused on the martial arts aspect, while others focus on assorted health benefits.

In speaking to people who indulge in Tai Chi, something that I found comforting about the concept and practice is the sense of ritual. Many practitioners have touted the importance of setting a routine —practicing Tai Chi in the same place at the same time each day and making it a part of your ongoing routine. Now, this is not to say that the benefits of Tai Chi will be diminished if your schedule is such that it does not allow you to do so. You can do Tai Chi anytime, anywhere, and you can certainly indulge in the healthy mind and body concepts of Tai Chi without doing the movements when you are in any stressful situation. It is also said that while the benefits of Tai Chi can come with short-term practice, that you may enjoy greater benefits by practicing long-term and becoming more adept at the art.

Evidence in some studies suggests that Tai Chi may enhance the immune system, which can be of interest to individuals living with HIV/AIDS. In one such study, people had ninety-minute Tai Chi sessions, along with other alternative stress management interventions, for ten weeks. The results showed that there was significant enhancement of immune function, more specifically, in lymphocyte proliferation counts. In another study, a group of experienced Tai Chi practitioners were studied for twelve weeks to measure the impact of the practice on immunity. It was found that there was a significant boost in the regulatory action of T cells. Some experts suggest that the slow, gliding movement of Tai Chi along with controlled breathing present a powerful force against toxins and diseases and that by bolstering the lymphatic system, Tai Chi may protect against autoimmune diseases.

Other evidence indicates that Tai Chi may help lower blood pressure, enhance the quality of sleep, reduce risks of falls in older adults, and improve joint pain, symptoms of congestive heart failure, and overall well-being. With proper instruction and performance, other benefits of Tai Chi may include improved aerobic capacity, balance, agility and stamina, increased muscle strength and definition, improved mood and a decrease in stress, anxiety and, depression, which can negatively impact immune system function. Stress management interventions may help to improve immune function and coping skills in individuals living with HIV, according to a study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Some studies have found that Tai Chi increases psychological health.

Tai Chi is available at many alternative health centers, community centers, and in a variety of fitness settings. Be sure to seek out experienced and qualified instructors when beginning this or any new practice.

After a lengthy career in the arts and LGBT activism, Rob Zukowski pursued his goal of a career in complementary and alternative healthcare. He is a New York State licensed Massage Therapist, a Certified Medical Massage Therapist and is certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. In addition to his hands-on work, he is a writer and lecturer in the field of therapeutic massage therapy.