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Writer: Amy Couteé
283 Medical Laboratories
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 335-8032; fax (319) 335-8034

Release: Immediate

T'ai Chi is one of alternative medicine topics at upcoming UI conference

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Bruce Lee movies and parodies of kung fu fighting have distorted most Americans' concepts of the martial arts. The martial art of T'ai Chi, however, has gained recognition in recent years for its potential as a form of preventive medicine.

"Western medicine is beginning to accept alternative treatments as ways to complement established medical practices," says Dr. Jo Ann Benda, University of Iowa professor of pathology. "T'ai Chi has been practiced in China for hundreds of years, and it is a technique that Americans can embrace because it can be learned by anyone. T'ai Chi can decrease blood pressure, improve balance, increase strength and flexibility, and decrease stress and anxiety."

Benda will deliver presentations on T'ai Chi as part of the seminar, "Complementary and Alternative Therapies: An Evidence-Based Approach," at the UI April 16-17.

"The nice thing about T'ai Chi is that you can do it anywhere, anytime and anyplace," says Benda, who can demonstrate a few postures in the tiny cluttered space behind her desk.

T'ai Chi is different from other martial art forms because it is non-aggressive; its goal is to deflect rather than attack the opponent. A series of movements flow in sequence as the person concentrates on maintaining balance. In fact, it's been called a "moving form of yoga." Rooted in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, T'ai Chi is also considered a meditation tool that keeps a person's energy, or "life force," in balance.

"T'ai Chi gives a person an overall sense of well-being," Benda says. "The notion is that each person has a life force, or Chi, that circulates throughout the body. T'ai Chi is one method that helps a person keep that energy balanced throughout the body."

For centuries the Chinese have believed that T'ai Chi maintains good health by tapping into internal self-healing energies. The slow, meditative movements of T'ai Chi are what balance the inner energy and create physical and mental benefits. In the United States, however, inner energy does not motivate people to learn about T'ai Chi.

"Alternative therapies are typically not part of a Western doctor's repertoire," Benda says. "What does warrant a second look, however, is the fact that there are proven physical and mental benefits that result from its practice." Currently at the UI, alternative medical techniques, such as T'ai Chi, are not part of medical students' curriculum. In addition, alternative therapies are not prescribed by most UIHC doctors.

"T'ai Chi retards the aging process," says Daniel Benton, one of eight T'ai Chi instructors in the Iowa City area. "As you get older there is a natural process where the mind and body grow stiff. T'ai Chi makes you flexible in body and mind."

Recent studies suggest the measurable benefits from T'ai Chi can help Americans, both young and old, stay healthy and recover from illness, Benda notes. She cites a 15-week study on elderly patients which showed that T'ai Chi improved their balance, flexibility, and strength and led to 45 percent fewer falls. Another study showed improvements in oxygen use and decreases in both diastolic and systolic blood pressure measures. A separate study of 28-year-olds found that T'ai Chi helped relieve stress and decrease fatigue, depression and anxiety. An additional benefit was that those who learned T'ai Chi integrated the practice into everyday life while those who were in the other exercise groups did not.

Those who suffer from chronic pain or have limited movement also can benefit. Diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis may be helped by T'ai Chi because it is low impact and does not require a lot of strength. Perhaps most importantly, it offers patients a way to be active in their healing process.

"T'ai Chi can thrive in the U.S. because of the health benefits. It's something you can do for yourself as you get older," Benton says. He notes that those who practice T'ai Chi will get sick less often and their illnesses will be less severe.

"Personally, I found I could not sit down and find quiet meditative time. I could never learn to quiet my mind," Benda says. Twelve-hour days in the laboratory and classroom required that Benda find a way to release stress. For her, T'ai Chi was the key. "The biggest benefit is the inner calm," Benda says.

The stress reduction was extremely useful for the UI professor, who has practiced T'ai Chi for five years. There are physical benefits, too. Benda says that her legs are stronger, her balance is better and her ability to cope with pain has greatly improved.

Benda hopes that the UI seminar will bring the proven benefits of alternative therapies to the attention of medical practitioners and enable them to integrate T'ai Chi and other therapies into their practice.

At the seminar, Benda will discuss the principles of T'ai Chi. She also will introduce a few T'ai Chi postures and detail some background theories of traditional Chinese medicine as they apply to T'ai Chi. Benda will also discuss research showing the benefits of T'ai Chi in improving balance and strength in older patients.