An Interview with Harvard Medical School Researcher Dr. Peter Wayne
Conventional medical science on the Chinese art of tai chi now supports what tai chi masters have known for centuries: regular practice can bring you significant health benefits. Dr. Peter Wayne, PhD, a longtime tai chi practitioner, teacher and a researcher at Harvard Medical School, has developed a simple health program based on his and other’s extensive research showing how tai chi can benefit your heart, bones, nerves and muscles, immune system, and brain.
Dr. Wayne’s program—included in his new book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp Mind, written with health writer Mark L. Fuerst—is suited to people of all ages, and can be done in just a few minutes a day. The program he provides may help lessen the effects of diseases such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and heart failure while leading to more vigor and energy, greater flexibility, balance, and mobility.
Emperor’s College academic dean to the master’s program, Dr. Jacques MoraMarco, had the opportunity to interview Dr. Wayne for the Qi Blog, where he elaborates on the health benefits of tai chi and how it can help prevent disease.
Dr. Jacques MoraMarco: You looked at several hundreds of peer reviewed articles and medical studies that show scientific evidence for the healing potential of tai chi. What are some of the most surprising research findings about tai chi’s health benefits that you can share with us?
Dr. Peter Wayne: One finding that intrigues us is tai chi’s impact on aerobic capacity and exercise capacity. In many of the populations we studied, for example, in heart failure patients or those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, patients begin the trial highly de-conditioned. Their stamina is very low. Their ability to walk a certain distance at a quick pace is very limited, and they experience shortness of breath. We know that exercise, in general, is good for building up stamina and aerobic capacity.
What’s been interesting to us, however, is how tai chi – this slow-moving meditative exercise – improves aerobic capacity and multiple cardiovascular risk factors. We and others have observed that patients with both heart and lung disease walk faster for longer periods of time after tai chi training.
Tai Chi and Aerobic Capacity
In one small study we compared fast-moving aerobic exercise versus tai chi, which we taught slowly with calming music, and measured the participants’ heart rate during the class. What we saw first was not at all surprising: The heart rate increase during exercise was two-fold greater during aerobics than tai chi. But what really surprised us, at the end of the study those in the tai chi group had greater improvements in walking distance compared to those in the aerobics class. So there’s something in addition to the increased heart rate in tai chi that is beneficial. We’re still exploring what it is about tai chi that even though you’re not moving quickly, you experience cardiovascular benefits.
In writing the book I was also moved by how many conditions tai chi seems to benefit. Clearly, tai chi is not the solution to everything, nor will it appeal to all people, but there’s sound evidence to suggest that it can make a difference for individuals with chronic pain conditions, such as osteoarthritis or fibromyalgia. It clearly improves motor control and balance, and it helps manage stress and psychological well-being. We’ve just published a new study suggesting that tai chi positively impacts cognitive function in older adults. It intrigues me that this one exercise seems to impact so many different physiological systems.
JM: Do you think the effects of tai chi are specific to tai chi or a general result of movement and exercise?
PW: What we tried to convey in our book is that tai chi can be viewed as a mixture of active ingredients for health, much like you would think of a complex herbal function in Chinese medicine. Some of the ingredients in tai chi are similar to conventional exercise, such as weight bearing and moderate aerobic stimulation. But there are some other factors related to how you coordinate movement, using unique neuromuscular training. Perhaps the most unique aspect of tai chi is related to cognitive elements. In practicing tai chi, we’re learning to focus our attention on all parts of our body and their connections and trying to rest in the present moment.
We also utilize imagery and intention. If you stand for a while and picture yourself with qualities like a deeply rooted tree, it then translates into measurable changes in posture and biomechanics. In some movements if you imagine “floating lightly like a cloud” this changes how you feel and move. This rich use of visualization and intention are unique to tai chi as compared to simply walking on a treadmill.
JM: On that note, what would you say is the main difference between practicing tai chi versus yoga?
PW: There are many principles common to tai chi and yoga. I would say that one of the biggest differences is that tai chi is largely done upright and emphasizes dynamic functional movements –largely due to its origin as a martial art. Even if you’re not practicing for martial arts, tai chi movements mimic activities of daily living, such as lifting, pushing, and pulling things.
One of the teachers in our tai chi lineage used to jokingly say: “You can get a lot of benefits from meditation and yoga by sitting on a cushion. But if you practice tai chi, it’s much harder for other people to knock you off the cushion.”
JM: In part 2 of your book, you walk the reader through the health benefits of tai chi by looking at it through the lens of modern science. Can you walk us through some of the key benefits that you list in individual chapters and how tai chi is so effective at improving these particular conditions?
Tai Chi and Balance
PW: One of the most studied benefits of tai chi is improved balance. If we look at the best studies, evidence supports that tai chi really reduces the risk of falling in older adults. This is critical because falls in older adults can lead to serious injuries and fractures, and at great economic costs to society. And statistics show that 1 out of 5 older adults with fall-related fractures die within one year because of the complications associated with it. So anything we can do to reduce falls is important, and tai chi is a very promising, safe, and cost-effective intervention.
In addition, people who have suffered a fall tend to walk very tentatively due to fear of another fall. Fear of falling typically presents as a tense stance, shallow breath, and elevated center of gravity. The preoccupation with being afraid of falling also makes people less aware of their environment. In Chinese medicine, we might say they have lost their rootedness. One consistent outcome in studies of unsteady elderly people is that tai chi reduces fear of falling. Practicing tai chi invites people to settle back into themselves, “find” and strengthen their legs, breath deeper, and be more aware of their environment. This lower level of fall-related anxiety, in turn, makes it less likely that they’ll fall again. And the confidence of moving around also leads to more activity in general and a better social life.
Learn More About Tai Chi
We look forward to using The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi as a textbook in our tai chi classes in the master’s program at Emperor’s College. If you would like to learn about Dr. Peter Wayne’s tai chi health program, you can order the book here: http://www.health.harvard.edu/books/the-harvard-medical-school-guide-to-tai-chi
About Peter Wayne, PhD
Peter Wayne, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Director of Research for the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, jointly based at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. His book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai chi, which was written in collaboration with award- winning health writer Mark L. Fuerst, covers everything people need to know to incorporate tai chi into their daily habits for a healthier, happier life.
About Jacques MoraMarco, OMD, LAc
Among the first licensed acupuncturists in the United States in 1977, Dr. Jacques MoraMarco, OMD, has over thirty-five years of experience in clinical medicine, academia and college administration. He currently serves as Academic Dean to the Master’s Program at Emperor’s College of Traditional Oriental Medicine. Prior to completing his doctorate in Oriental medicine at California Acupuncture College, he studied at the Institute of Oriental Medicine Studies in Los Angeles and completed postgraduate work at Ecole Europeene d’Acupuncture in Paris.