Tai Chi Increases Brain Size and Benefits Cognition in Randomized Controlled Trial of Chinese Elderly

Happy brain with "hands" up

Tampa, FL (June 19, 2012) — Scientists from the University of South Florida and Fudan University in Shanghai found increases in brain volume and improvements on tests of memory and thinking in Chinese seniors who practiced Tai Chi three times a week, reports an article published today in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Findings were based on an 8-month randomized controlled trial comparing those who practiced Tai Chi to a group who received no intervention. The same trial showed increases in brain volume and more limited cognitive improvements in a group that participated in lively discussions three times per week over the same time period.

Previous trials have shown increases in brain volume in people who participated in aerobic exercise, and in one of these trials, an improvement in memory was seen. However, this was the first trial to show that a less aerobic form of exercise, Tai Chi, as well as stimulating discussion led to similar increases in brain volume and improvements on psychological tests of memory and thinking.

The group that did not participate in the interventions showed brain shrinkage over the same time period, consistent with what generally has been observed for persons in their 60s and 70s.

Numerous studies have shown that dementia and the syndrome of gradual cognitive deterioration that precedes it is associated with increasing shrinkage of the brain as nerve cells and their connections are gradually lost.

“The ability to reverse this trend with physical exercise and increased mental activity implies that it may be possible to delay the onset of dementia in older persons through interventions that have many physical and mental health benefits,” said lead author Dr. James Mortimer, professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health.

Research suggests that aerobic exercise is associated with increased production of brain growth factors. It remains to be determined whether forms of exercise like Tai Chi that include an important mental exercise component could lead to similar changes in the production of these factors. “If this is shown, then it would provide strong support to the concept of “use it or lose it” and encourage seniors to stay actively involved both intellectually and physically,” Dr. Mortimer said.

One question raised by the research is whether sustained physical and mental exercise can contribute to the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common dementing illness.

“Epidemiologic studies have shown repeatedly that individuals who engage in more physical exercise or are more socially active have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Mortimer said. “The current findings suggest that this may be a result of growth and preservation of critical regions of the brain affected by this illness.”

Source: James A. Mortimer, Ding Ding, Amy R. Borenstein, Charles DeCarli, Qihao Guo, Yougui Wu, Qianhua Zhao, Shugang Chu. Changes in Brain Volume and Cognition in a Randomized Trial of Exercise and Social Interaction in a Community-Based Sample of Non-Demented Chinese EldersJournal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2012

Introduction

Tai Chi Chuan logo, without text
Tai Chi Chuan logo, without text

Introduction

It is a privilege and joy to be able to share experiences and understanding that come from the practice and teaching Tai Chi Chuan. This is an endless path of learning and sharing, with realizations small and large along the way.

The way of Tai Chi Chuan, like other wisdom traditions, is subtle and not so easily grasped. Yet, on the other hand, it is grasped from the very beginning when a new practitioner tastes even a little bit of the warm energy and the spaciousness inside and out that Tai Chi Chuan practice can awaken.

The forms practiced in Tai Chi Chuan are not just a series of movements, but a practice that nurtures opening to oneself and deepening connection with others. Through practice, the individual awakens to a formless softness and awareness, loosening the boundaries that excessively separate the individual from the bigger world.

The state of being soft (or relaxed) and alert is often thought of as a pair of opposites, but one of the beauties of Tai Chi Chuan practice is that we can experience how they exist simultaneously when we can express our whole selves.

I want to thank Grandmaster William C.C. Chen for so diligently embodying and sharing these principles, as all of his long-time students have witnessed. He has modeled dedication to spreading awareness of the true principles of mind / body connection, and a generous demeanor that arises from a full understanding of the principles of Tai Chi Chuan.

All the descriptions and imagery in the following pages are based on my lived experience of practice and teaching. Along with meditation practice, I was able to become open to all of this as a result of my Tai Chi Chuan studies, and was supported in this by Grandmaster Chen.

As a result of these 40+ years of study and teaching, this book is both a record of the methods of GM William C.C. Chen, but also a record of my own experience, dedicated to sharing the great meaning of Tai Chi Chuan and of human experience.

The ultimate purpose for writing this book is to offer good guidance and inspiration for the practice of the true principles of Tai Chi Chuan, for a healthier and happier life for all. May you enjoy the fruits of this practice.

What is Tai Chi Chuan?

Man practicing Tai Chi Chuan in nature
Man practicing Tai Chi Chuan in nature

What is Tai Chi Chuan?

What is the essence of Tai Chi Chuan? Regarding the short form, which many have witnessed practiced in public spaces, people are engaged in what appears to be a repetitive exercise. But why repeat those movements, day by day, year after year?

There must be essential elements that are stimulated or uncovered through this concentrated practice, or millions of individuals would not be continuing this practice. I would like to share with you the important essence behind the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, and how that essence benefits mental and physical well-being and health.

In this and subsequent articles, I plan to discuss these essential elements with you, the reader, based on my lifetime practice of meditation and Tai Chi Chuan. And if you are already familiar with these essential elements, I hope to support and share understanding and insight, for mutual benefit.

At nearly 70 years old, I am healthy and active, don’t need medication, and am in a good, positive state of mind. I attribute that good overall state to practicing meditation and Tai Chi Chuan, and trying to incorporate their principles of nondualism into daily life. Of course, given the nature of life, that good health could change at any time, but for now, it is something for which I am grateful.

Starting at the beginning, what does the name “Tai Chi Chuan” mean? Two translations you may encounter are “Grand Ultimate Fist” and “Great Polarity Boxing.” The two translations are pointing to the same transcendent understanding. Of course, words are always pointers; it is up to our selves to explore and experience the important meanings of the words.

It is our human nature, to contain and live with both passive, or yin, and active, or yang. These are the seeming “utimates” or “polarities”. And when we see and express both clearly, we can understand a truth which is beyond those opposites. “Fist” and “boxing” refer to the efforts for insight, as well as the efforts for the wise action of martial arts. Insight and action cannot be separated except as a convenience for discussion.

For me, Tai Chi Chuan is study of how our mind and body harmonize at a deep level, which results in a more meaningful experience of the world. Our clear mind and flowing energy, developed through practice, are experienced as spaciousness and true freedom.

Tai Chi Chuan practice is a way to turn our human potential into reality. I find that Tai Chi Chuan practice helps mind and body be more grounded, helps release tensions that would otherwise accumulate, and fosters that sense of spaciousness and true freedom.

So, with a topic as important as experiencing your best self day by day, let’s discuss the nature of this practice. In following articles, we will also discuss more specific principles, and ultimately look at the details of brain and body connection and movement that make this practice meaningful and impactful in everyday life.

Because it supports expression of the “grand polarities” of letting go and engaging energetically, Tai Chi Chuan is a practice of both mind and body. Human nature cannot live with fulfillment with only the physical, nor for that matter with only the mental; insight and expression go hand-in-hand and cannot truly be separated.

Without a good practice of presence, such as meditation or Tai Chi Chuan, we are liable to become wrapped up in inner and outer stresses. If we live with excessive passive, or yin, we will experience disruptive sadness and lack of energy, and not be able to release those. If we live with excessive active, or yang, we will experience anxiety and tension, and not be able to release those.

Conversely, letting go of opposites, letting go of tension based in worry for the past or future, and instead living peacefully in the present, with the flowing changes moment to moment, is like taking the best imaginable vacation, where well-being takes over—and there are no hotel or flight reservations needed!

Tai Chi Chuan is a practice of moving freely between our passive and active, and thereby uncovering and enabling the nondualistic fundamental nature that we all have as human beings. That is good for health as well as mental well-being. Nondualism means peacefulness, a non-conflicting mind, and freedom to express fully and with empathy, in each moment.

As practitioners of Tai Chi Chuan, we are walking on a path to greater understanding and expression of our essence, the best of our capacity as human beings. I believe that path is a foundation for living in the best way, moment by moment.

When the mind and body are harmonized, our actions become helpful and authentically compassionate, while our mind is able to find peacefulness, with reduced inner and outer conflict, and with more energy available for important activities.

That is the essence of Tai Chi Chuan, if we want to understand and experience its value. Although at the beginning these principles are not very clear, through practice and over time we can unfold a growing awareness of these important principles, express more meaning in our daily lives, and be more effective in accomplishing our important goals in life.

 

Tai Chi Chuan exercise related change in brain function as assessed by functional near–infrared spectroscopy

Tai Chi Chuan (TCC) is a typical mind–body and low–intensity aerobic exercise that involves cognitive training and movement meditation and has positive associations with physiological and psychological conditions. TCC has metabolic equivalents estimated between 1.5 and 4.0.

This aerobic intensity overlaps with brisk walking which has been demonstrated to contribute to the prevention of cognitive decline, and rehabilitation of dementia and stroke; notably, TCC has been observed to improve power, balance, memory and attention after 6 months.

Moreover, TCC practice can affect the brain prefrontal structure and function and improve memory, as observed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The parietal and occipital cortices in TCC practitioners were found to have thickened through the same method.

Electroencephalo–graph (EEG) showed significant theta activities in the fronto–central and centro–parietal cortical areas in TCC practitioners and TCC have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. However, the mechanism of the effects of TCC training on brain function remains poorly understood, especially in real–time body movements. Therefore, it is necessary to study the change in brain function related to TCC movement state.

Beyond the intensity of activity in a particular cortical region induced by TCC, significant differences in brain activity and dynamic configuration of connectivity were observed between the TCC and control groups during resting and movement states. These findings suggested that TCC training improved the connection of PFC, MC and OC in myogenic activity, sympathetic nervous system, and endothelial cell metabolic activities; enhanced brain functional connections and relayed the ability of TCC to improve cognition and the anti–memory decline potential… Read full article

Nosey, Noisy Muscles and Training Your Brain

Tai Chi Chuan ward off right, showing hands

In our daily lives, most of us, even those who consider themselves relatively relaxed and stress-free, are holding a lot of muscle tension in our bodies, and corresponding tension in thoughts and feelings.

As psychologists and scientists have been exploring for well over 100 years, there is activity in the brain–feelings, worries, and so on–that cause us to create that muscle tension. And we are not even aware of the majority of that tension, since it is habitual.

Tai Chi Chuan practice is one way to gradually release that tension. By focusing on full brain / mind / body integration and action, we start to cut through our own seemingly endless loops of thought and feeling, loops that create stress and loss of simple enjoyment in our selves.

I like to call the Yang-style Short Form a framework for self-development. The reason we repeat the “same” thing over an over is that each time we do so, we are learning something new.

The Tai Chi Chuan form is never the same, even for the same person who carries it out twice in a row. Each time we practice the form, we are actively creating our experience as we move slowly and with awareness from moment to moment.

What does that mean in practical terms? How do we do this?

Ying - Yang symbolOne key is to understand and use the Yin-Yang polarity. As human beings we can never function in total release nor in total action. Life is a moment-by-moment flow between letting go and engagement, on a background that is neither one of those. That is our reality!

While practicing Tai Chi Chuan, we are connecting to and embodying that reality. And when that happens, our brain / mind / body starts to feel both more awake, and more free of stress. In pre-action moves we release into the ground and sink energy into the feet and below into the Earth. In the subsequent action move, the energy expands from toes to fingers, filling our whole brain / mind / body with warm feelings and energy. The flow between release/letting go and action/engagement helps our nervous system function better, circulation improve, and has other positive effects as well.

This scientific article points out positive, measurable brain effectiveness changes due to Tai Chi Chuan practice. It is dense reading, but the conclusions point to less “noise” when we activate functions, and more consistent integration of the parts of the brain that need to be integrated.

Grandmaster William C.C. Chen coined the term “nosey muscles”, referring to the unwanted activation of muscles that get in the way of simple, enjoyable movement. It turns out, we can also call them “noisy muscles”… that is, muscle and thought activations resulting from noise in the brain that interferes with clean, effective, enjoyable functioning in the moment.

Nosey, noisy: the key is to realize our brain can and should activate our body functions in a more integrated and less stressed manner.

Practicing the form day after day and year after year helps build a new set of circuits and a new set of resulting perceptions and experiences that allow us to accomplish more with less stress and more enjoyment. And that is a good thing, right?

Why Tai Chi Chuan is a Great Martial Art Practice

Tai Chi Chuan practice among trees and plants, solo

Many people come to practice Tai Chi Chuan for good reasons: the most common reasons are better balance, “relaxation”, and maintaining or improving health.

These are all valid reasons!

However, there can be a tendency to forget that Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art; it is actually an excellent fighting art.

I want to share WHY it is important to remember that Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art, even if you never intend to use it for that purpose.

When practicing the Short Form, it is not enough to go through the movements, and memorize them, without understanding the principles that are the basis of these movements.

Because of my experience, in my teaching of Tai Chi Chuan I focus on the dynamic energy and feeling that is the basis of high-quality Tai Chi Chuan. This means integrating the energy and feeling of brain, toes, and fingers while we are moving.

When brain, toes, and fingers can communicate, energy can expand freely, resulting in power without tension, and softness without weakness.

In summary, the results of practicing with the right understanding are:

  • increased speed and power
  • improved balance
  • better health, and
  • a sense of peace and well-being

It is worth noting that if you do want to try using Tai Chi Chuan for sparring or competition, it is also necessary to actually practice Sanshou (boxing) as well as Push Hands. In that way, the foundation of connection and energy flow can be channeled successfully into the mindset of confidence under pressure, and into the responsive movements that are required for the more rapid-fire engagement of martial art practice.

The Real Meaning of Relaxation for Health, Well-Being, and Martial Arts

Tai Chi Chuan hands

People pursue Tai Chi Chuan practice for a variety of reasons: health, fall prevention / balance, well-being, improvement in martial arts and other sports, and for relaxation / de-stressing.

I can make the case that to deeply relax and de-stress is the most central experience in Tai Chi Chuan practice that explains all the other benefits. However, the word “relax” can be misleading. We all want to be able to relax, but what does that really mean and what does it require?

When I feel stressed, if I lie down on the beach—or lie in bed for that matter—am I relaxing? Well, yes and no. We are indeed avoiding excessive stimulation and giving our awareness a chance to let go of a demanding daily life. That can have some benefits, but the benefits are limited!

Once we go back to a busy daily life and to the demands of relationships and society, the experience of stress is likely to resume where we left off.

The benefit of Tai Chi Chuan practice is that we are actively training our brain / body how to  stay calm and happy more consistently despite any daily stressors. When practiced with the right approach, Tai Chi Chuan involves intentional letting go and then energizing, repeated over and over in a fluid, rhythmic pattern. As a result, our brain can stay connected with a deeply relaxed and open experience to a wide variety of daily experiences, including those that many people feel are boring or stressful.

The benefits I have experienced, and have seen others experience, from Tai Chi Chuan practice include: a positive state of mind; the ability to let go of stress while being energetic and active; and excellent health into ages of 60s, 70s, and beyond.

There are many “right approaches” to Tai Chi Chuan study and practice, including variations on the form positions, but what they all have in common is learning how to release at a deep level, and how to engage our whole brain and body when we decide to energize.

It is the looking inside with brain and body during practice that allows us to train for a happier, more vibrant state of mind along with increased empathy for self and others. The brain functions with more energy, while the busy thinking mind lets go of excessive and repetitive worries. Muscle and mental tensions also release in this process, leading to a feeling of well-being as well as improvements in health. 

In short, when there is less worry and tension, there is more opportunity for all kinds of positive states of mind and body.

So, coming back to the word “relax”: in Tai Chi practice we can enter a state of deep, peaceful focus. The awareness expands and is alert, while the body is fluid and comfortable. We are no longer locked into the physical perimeter of our being, but feel more connected to other people as well as to the surrounding environment. This experience goes well beyond the usual meaning of the word “relax”!

The shifts that occur with Tai Chi practice happen gradually, for most people, but can usually be felt at least a bit, soon after starting to practice. Tai Chi Chuan practice is beneficial at each step of the way, because it is constantly teaching us more awareness of self and others.

How to start? The most effective way to learn this practice is to participate in classes with a skilled teacher, along with practicing on your own to reinforce the learning experience. If you would like to discuss this, I can be reached at (718) 229-2609. And if you are not in the NYC / Long Island area, I can help locate a group practice that may be accessible for you.

I hope you will explore the ways you can stay healthy and feel more well-being. Tai Chi Chuan can be an important part of living that fulfilling life.

11 Ways Tai Chi Can Benefit Your Health

Tai Chi Chuan practice above ocean
  • Reduces stress
  • Improves mood
  • Better sleep
  • Weight loss
  • Improves cognition
  • Improves balance
  • Fibromyalgia
  • COPD
  • Parkinson’s
  • Heart disease
  • Arthritis
  • Takeaway

What is tai chi?

Tai chi is a form of exercise that began as a Chinese tradition. It’s based in martial arts, and involves slow movements and deep breaths. Tai chi has many physical and emotional benefits. Some of the benefits of tai chi include decreased anxiety and depression and improvements in cognition. It may also help you manage symptoms of some chronic diseases, such as fibromyalgia or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Read on to learn more about the benefits and risks of tai chi, and how you can begin practicing this exercise.

1. Reduces stress

One of the main benefits of tai chi is its ability to reduce stress and anxiety, though most evidence is anecdotal.

In 2018, one study compared the effects of tai chi on stress-related anxiety to traditional exercise. The study included 50 participants. The researchers found that tai chi provided the same benefits for managing stress-related anxiety as exercise. Because tai chi also includes meditation and focused breathing, the researchers noted that tai chi may be superior to other forms of exercise for reducing stress and anxiety. However… Read the full article

Tai Chi Chuan optimizes the functional organization of the intrinsic human brain architecture in older adults

Brain and functional homogeneity, research article

Whether Tai Chi Chuan (TCC) can influence the intrinsic functional architecture of the human brain remains unclear. To examine TCC-associated changes in functional connectomes, resting-state functional magnetic resonance images were acquired from 40 older individuals including 22 experienced TCC practitioners (experts) and 18 demographically matched TCC-naïve healthy controls, and their local functional homogeneities across the cortical mantle were compared.

Compared to the controls, the TCC experts had significantly greater and more experience-dependent functional homogeneity in the right post-central gyrus (PosCG) and less functional homogeneity in the left anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the right dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. Increased functional homogeneity in the PosCG was correlated with TCC experience. Intriguingly, decreases in functional homogeneity (improved functional specialization) in the left ACC and increases in functional homogeneity (improved functional integration) in the right PosCG both predicted performance gains on attention network behavior tests.

These findings provide evidence for the functional plasticity of the brain’s intrinsic architecture toward optimizing locally functional organization, with great implications for understanding the effects of TCC on cognition, behavior and health in aging population… Read full article

Slow motion of Tai Chi Chuan—William C. C. Chen

Spleen 21 meridian schematic

June 12, 2018

The awareness center of brain is located on the top of the back head in Chinese medical chart named“Baihui” (百會- the hundred gatherings, which is a place to receive information and processing.) and the western’s indication is an “Antenna”. Raising the alertness in the brain from spinal cord without muscle tension (虛靈頂勁) in the movements is elevating the feeling of Yi to animate the Qi in the fingers and toes into a desire action. At same time, it raises the oxygen and blood in the brain cells to keep them healthy and to perfect their functioning.

These are the objective of martial artists to have the ability of quick central nervous system reactions. Their punches and kicks are undertaken directly by the brain awareness. When this awareness awakens, action is delivered by the remote nervous system components of fingers and toes. Synchronizing the awareness of the brain, fingers and toes is the central purpose of this Tai Chi Chuan   practice.

The slow-motion of Tai Chi Chuan practice is like Bluetooth, pairing the connection of the fingers and the toes with the control center of the nervous system. Once it’s paired, the practitioner’s brain, fingers and toes work as an inseparable unit: any emotion and intention in the conscious brain is instantly transmitted into the physical action of the fingers and toes without any delay. This is of extreme importance for martial artists when they are engaged in fighting.

The quick transmission of a neuro-reflex into physical action is essential for the martial artist, with the implication that he or she can deliver the punches and kicks within a split second. It is like the specialized ability of the courtroom stenographer; whose fingers type as people speak. This neural and physical connection is a necessary function of all human beings, which enables them to accomplish our daily activities more effectively and quickly, whether we work at home or have a job in an office.

In today’s rapidly changing world, left hemisphere brain functioning is no longer enough. Today’s invention is tomorrow’s history, and by the day after tomorrow, it’s ancient history. The work of future Tai Chi Chuan players will require creative and intuitive thinking as well as physical action. Any successful individual can and must learn how to use a fully functional brain integrated with the power of emotional and physical cooperation.

For the past 60’s of my teaching, learning and sharing this slow motion of the movements, I began with body mechanics principles, then moved into bio-mechanics and now I am involved with neurophysiology. The connections of the three elements of brain, fingers and toes are crucial to our daily activities. It is like the computer that requires the software of human a brilliant mind to enhance the system. The system must be updated monthly, weekly even daily. The bus is not going to stop here, the learning and perfecting is never ending, which is similar to our computer’s software being updated every so often.

These unhurried and relaxed movements help to regulate the nervous system, lubricate the joints and eliminate stiff muscle contractions. They facilitate full cooperation with brain function, circumventing physical interference from the muscles. This enables our fingers and toes to reach the highest level in the work of art.

For health, the soft movements of the practice ease body tension, promote the flow of vital energy Qi and replaces muscle rigidity with flexibility and excellent body coordination. They boost one’s mental tranquility, improve physical fitness, increase blood circulation to its full capacity, and provide the tissues of the various organs with the maximum amount of oxygen.

These silent meditative movements of Tai Chi Chuan is an art of Tao 道 which incorporates the brain workout, setting up a solid state communication between the neurons in the brain and the distant limbs of the fingers and toes. On top of this, an elevated oxygenate-blood flow in the brain cells helps to keep this utmost important central organ alive, like new. It is an essential to the martial artists, as well as the greatest contributions to the well-being of humanity. (寧靜的太極拳動作帶給人類最佳的貢獻).