Slow Aging in Mind and Body

July 21, 2019 Joe Brady

The elixir of life and the fountain of youth have been sought for centuries by those who wish to stay young . It still seems that each month we hear about a new anti aging drug or product that promises the proverbial youth in a bottle. There is one anti-aging therapy that has been around for over 600 years. It is receiving a lot of new interest. This “newly discovered therapy” is actually the ancient Chinese exercise of Tai-chi (pronounced Tie-chee). Translated, Tai-chi means ” the supreme ultimate exercise”, and recent research is providing evidence that Tai-chi may well live up to that name. Recent research has shown Tai Chi may be able to slow the underlying process of aging itself.

This moderate aerobic exercise is performed with slow rhythmic motions, that  gently strengthen the whole body without the pounding of traditional exercise. Tai-chi is also a moving meditation that combines the health benefits of physical activity and stress management  into one neat little exercise. Shown to improve cardiovascular fitness, strength, flexibility, balance and coordination, Tai-chi improves stress management, relaxation and presence of mind. 

Aging is Stress

George Baker, one of the top evolutionary biologists in the country, defines aging as ”the decline over time in the fitness of a person to withstand the stresses of day-to-day living”. Many of us have experienced rapid aging due to stress. For example a person can age before our eyes after a stressful or traumatic experience. Also, studies have found that if stress related hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and ACTH, are injected into young healthy rats, they quickly turn their hair gray, wrinkle their skin and age their muscles and bones. In Tom Johnson’s laboratory at CU in Boulder, they are studying the genes that have been implicated in aging. As more is understood about how these aging genes  work, they seem to be stress response genes. For instance when you stress an animal too much, it ages quickly and dies. If you don’t stress an animal at all, it atrophy’s and dies. But if you stress an animal a little bit and then allow it to rest, it grows stronger and lives longer. It seems a strong mind in a strong body may be the key to a strong and long life- right down to the genetics level.

Tai Chi is increasingly Popular in the Press and Medical Literature

Tai-chi was featured in Bill Moyers PBS series on “Healing and the Mind”because of Tai-chi’s benefit’s for health in mind and body and the connection between them. Kenneth Pelltier with the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention writes in the American Journal of Health Promotion;  ” there is an increasingly compelling body of evidence indicating that mind/body interactions are at the root of both health and disease”.  Psychological characteristics such as mood, depression and anger have been shown to be important mediators in health and immune system response. In a study reported in Medical Science and Sports Exercise, Tai-chi was compared to traditional exercise for psychological effects. While all the exercisers showed improvements in greater satisfaction with physical attributes, the Tai-chi group also showed greater reductions in tension, depression, anger, confusion, mood disturbance and an improvement in general mood above and beyond that of western exercise.

Tai Chi is Legitimate Moderate Aerobic Exercise!

The effect of aerobic exercise on slowing the aging process has been well documented. The gentle slow motion approach of Tai-chi is generally not perceived to be aerobic. Recent research has shown that this martial art is indeed a great moderate aerobic exercise ( typically at about 60% of ones heart rate reserve) without any of the wear and tear associated with common forms of western exercise.

One study reported in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society found that   Tai-chi not only improved the aerobic fitness of subjects but had also slowed the rate of aging in the heart, lungs, circulatory system and musculature of older adults who practiced it. In this study scientists measured subject’s VO2 max, a test of aerobic fitness and a biomarker of aging. Scientists were able to show a fifty percent reduction in the normal age related decline to that of sedentary control subjects. It is known that people who do vigorous normal exercise have higher levels of fitness but decline at a faster rate, where the Tai-chi seem to slow the rate of decline beyond that of normal exercise. See Journal of the American Geriatric Society, 43, 1222-1227

Tai Chi’s Positively Effects Stem Cell Production

Tai Chi has been shown to have many great health benefits. One study looked to find direct evidence of Tai Chi’s antiaging effects on stem cells. Published in Cell Transplantation the study found that Tai Chi can help raise the numbers of a stem cell — CD34 cells — important to a number of the body’s functions and structures. Scientists compared the rejuvenating and antiaging effects among Tai Chi group (TCC) and brisk walking group (BW) and no exercise habit group (NEH)  The participants in the Tai chi group outperformed the sedentary group with respect to the number of CD34+ progenitor cells. No significant difference was found between the TCC group and the BW group. TCC practice sustained for more than 1 year may be an intervention against aging as effective as brisk walking in terms of its benefits on the improvement of CD34+ number.

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Tai Chi and Falls Risk

One of the areas that Tai-chi has shown superiority to normal exercise is in the area of balance and falls risk. Balance is a fundamental skill on which all physical skills depend. You can’t change a light bulb or hit a hole in one, without good balance. Balance is also the most well behaved of all the genetic and functional markers of aging according to Gerald Mclearn of Penn State. 

One balance study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the FICSIT study, was a major randomized trial of the benefits of Tai-chi, aerobic exercise, strength training and physical therapy. The researchers found that Tai-chi was the most effective in improving balance skills and preventing falls in older adults. Intensive physical therapy came in a close second…at $100 per hour as compared to an average $8 per hour for Tai-chi. Normal aerobic exercise came in a distant third and strength training came in dead last for improving balance. Actually these results are to be expected. Balance is a skill that can be taught, as children are taught in the sport of gymnastics. Tai-chi or physical therapy teach better balance, whereas traditional types of exercise make no attempt to deliberately coach these skills.

Tai Chi can Improve Memory and Increase Brain Size

In an article published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, scientists from the University of South Florida and Fudan University in Shanghai found increases in brain volume and improvements in memory and thinking as well as improvements on psychological tests of memory and thinking. The study looked at Chinese seniors who practiced Tai Chi three times a week. 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 also 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. Earlier studies have shown increases in brain size in people who participated in aerobic exercise, and in one of these trials, an improvement in memory was seen. 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 gradual cognitive deterioration that precedes dementia is associated with increasing shrinkage of the brain as nerve cells and their connections are gradually lost.

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So even though exercise has been shown to cut the normal rate of aging in half  allowing us to maintain independence for many years, 80-90% of us still do not include physical activity as an important aspect of our lives.  We know that numerous health benefits have been attributed to moderate exercise, including less risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and osteoporosis. So why do we quit exercising or not make the time for physical activity? Because it hurts or we simply find it boring. Unfortunately, many of us put off starting exercise programs and end up needing expensive therapy or even surgery to fix what could have been prevented. The sooner we can start on an exercise program, the better.  

By investing a little time in some training, Tai-chi offers a complete exercise that you can do for the rest of your life – anytime, anyplace without expensive equipment or membership fees. All you need is your mind and your body. Time tested over the last 600 years, the Chinese have used Tai-chi as their primary form of exercise therapy.