While living in Hong Kong, I would sometimes see small groups of older Asians doing an odd kind of exercise. They would slowly move their arms and hands back and forth, while standing in a partial crouch. It looked sort of like martial arts in slow motion. Inside I would chuckle, thinking, "C'mon now, you call that exercise?" Because at the time I was getting what I thought was a real workout -- sweaty, intense, lung-busting -- by racing about on my bicycle for two and a half hours at a time, chasing golf carts up inclines and sprinting up mountain slopes.
Then came my battle with knee pain (chronicled in my book Saving My Knees). It was a humbling and frightening experience. At times I thought maybe my doctors were right, and I simply would never get better. Finally I dedicated myself to a long, slow program of recovery, based on what I'd learned about what joints need to become healthy again. And it worked.
During my struggle to save my knees, sometimes I would see the tai chi exercisers I had scorned. Instead of smugly passing by, I would pause and watch them. The more I saw, the more impressed I became. Because the new me -- the me that understood that going slow can make sense when your condition is hard to heal -- perceived tai chi in a new, positive light.
Since then, what I've read about this activity has only served to make me more curious about its possible benefits.
For instance, tai chi has a reputation for being "meditation in motion," as a Los Angeles Times article this week reminds us. That's a winning combo for chronic joint pain.
In saving my knees, I learned the importance of motion to ensure, and restore, joint health. My first of four golden rules for bad knees is "use it or lose it." Scientific studies (I cite them in my book) have found repeatedly that cartilage in joints starts going bad with immobility.
Meditation too is helpful, calming the troubled mind of a chronic pain sufferer. For a while, when negative thoughts constantly colored my thinking, I meditated daily, trying to find a peaceful space where my body didn't hurt all the time. The mind can be a very powerful force in healing.
Tai chi appears to have other benefits too. It may improve balance. And, more relevant for this blog, a study showed it helped with knee osteoarthritis.
WebMD has a short piece about tai chi here touting the activity as "low-impact, weight-bearing and aerobic." That also sounds like a winning combo to me. The weight-bearing part may not make it a preferable exercise for all knee pain sufferers, but low-impact is what your damaged cartilage needs for a while, until you can sufficiently strengthen it.
Okay, there are some of my rambling thoughts about tai chi. Has anyone out there tried it who wants to share a story?