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Tai Chi for Weight Management

Posted by Grandmaster Gary Khor on 24 Feb 2020

Excess Weight (Obesity in extreme circumstances) is a major problem in our society because of its medical consequences.  Because Tai Chi is a slow relaxed exercise it is not often seen as a weight management tool, which is a pity as Tai Chi exercises, are ideally suited to being part of weight management problems.  The purpose of this guideline is to explain to instructors and through them to students both the consequences of excess weight and how Tai Chi can both help manage body weight and help protect against the health risks arising from excess weight.  Note pages marked “Copies of this page may be given to students who have request advice on weight management”.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY EXCESS WEIGHT?

Excess weight is not about having a body weight that conforms with societies current views about what the “ideal” body” should look like, it is not in fact about weight at all, rather it is about having a ratio of fat to muscle tissue that leads to positive rather than negative health outcomes.  However, since people are used to thinking in terms of “weight” this guideline will continue to use that terminology.

HOW WIDESPREAD IS EXCESS WEIGHT?

It is estimated that there are approximately 300,000,000 obese people in the world (obesity occurs at the upper end of the overweight spectrum.  The distribution of fat tissue is significant as the highest health risks occur with abdominal fat.  It is estimated by the year 2025 the percentage of the Australian population who will be obese (not just overweight) will be between 30 and 40 per cent.

HOW DOES EXCESS WEIGHT OCCUR?

While there can be a genetic predisposition to heavier body builds and some people are more efficient at storing excess calories than others the fundamental reason for excess weight is consuming more calories of food than is used by the body.  Only these excess calories can be stored by the body as fat tissue.

NEGATIVE HEALTH OUTCOMES FROM EXCESS WEIGHT

·         Increased risk of Chronic Heart Disease

·         Increased risk of Hypertension and high blood pressure

·         Increased risk of stroke

·         Increased risk of gall bladder problems

·         Increased risk of hiatus hernia

·         Increased risk of certain forms of cancer

·         Increased risk of Diabetes

·         Increased risk of Joint problems (including arthritis)

·         Increased falls risk and osteoporotic fracture

·         Increased risk of spinal problems

·         Low self-esteem with increased risk of depression and fatigue

WHY SHOULD YOU CHOOSE TAI CHI TO HELP MANAGE WEIGHT RATHER THAN SOME MORE VIGOROUS EXERTIVE EXERCISE?

Any exercise will burn calories so why not pick the one that burns the most calories?  Even if the only objective of practicing Tai Chi was to increase the number of calories used by a person a good argument could still be made for using Tai Chi. Most people judge the value of an exercise as a means of reducing body weight by the number of calories that exercise consumes per minute.  The more calories an exercise consumes in a minute the faster you will lose weight, right?

Unfortunately, this approach suffers from the same problems as “Crash Dieting”.  Obviously if you stop eating altogether then you have the fastest weight loss, but this comes with significant risk and sooner or later you have to go back to eating.  People also tend to have a “Crash Exercise” mentality; they exercise vigorously for a short period of time but soon give up the exercises because they are unpleasant, inconvenient or because the student injures themselves.

Just as a sensible, pleasant, long-term diet is the best diet for long term weight management so a sensible, pleasant, long-term exercise program is the best exercise for long-term weight management. Actually, Tai Chi consumes a surprising number of calories – about 320 per hour as opposed to a calorie’s consumption of 90 calories per hour when your body is in a resting state.  The reason that Tai Chi consumes so many calories but seems so relaxing is because it uses so many of the body’s muscles (about 96% as opposed to say, swimming which uses 64%).  This means that rather than using a small group of muscles to exhaustion Tai Chi is using a larger number less frequently.  Still, sprint running, weightlifting, swimming, sprint bicycle riding, etc. will use considerably more calories per minute than Tai Chi.

The question is not however, how many calories per minute that you use but how many calories you use in an overall day.  If working with weights uses twice as many calories as Tai Chi per minute Tai Chi still consumes the same number of calories if we practice Tai Chi twice if we exercise with the weights.

The other issue is convenience if you know Tai Chi you can practice it anywhere, you don’t need any special clothes, and you don’t need to shower afterwards.  You can practice in your lounge room, your garden, your office etc.  This means that it is relatively easy to work up to practicing an hour a day or more (perhaps in three 20-minute sessions).  That’s an increase in calorie usage by the body of some 1500 calories per week over 80,000 calories per year.  That’s a big impact - around 10% of average annual calorie consumption.  Remember also that after each session you’re not exhausted you are revitalized, you’re relaxed, refreshed and reinvigorated and so more likely to continue with activities that use more calories rather than collapse in a chair or on a bed! 

One also needs to remember that the body has a slowdown period after exercise in which it still burns more calories so several periods of exercise a day may be more effective than one period of intense exercise.

Perhaps even more important is that Tai Chi offers the opportunity to exercise without risk of injury.  Vigorous exertive exercise carries injury risk.  (In one study it was shown that over 70% of aerobics instructors injured themselves in their activity, so what hope for the average student, let alone one with weight issues?).

When you learn Tai Chi your body also learns postural and movement techniques that help protect the body particularly the knees and spine.

SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS IN CLASS.

(1)               Make sure that the student does not try to do too much too soon. Students should avoid any deep knee bends and putting excessive strain on hips and spine.

 

(2)               Encourage the student to use qigong visualisations that involve the Stomach, Small intestine and particularly the Spleen meridians.

 

(3)               Low self-esteem from the problems associated with excess weight may be a secondary effect of the condition.  The instructor may need to encourage and motivate the student to overcome this.

 

(4)               Stress may play a role in stimulating the feeling of hunger and encouraging excess consumption of food so it is important that the overweight student’s exercise experience with the AATC be as “stress free” as possible learning the relaxation techniques and enjoying the class may turn out to be an important benefit of the exercise program.

 

(5)               Remember every student with a weight issue is different - you are helping a human being not a health condition!

 BENEFITS OF WEIGHT LOSS WITH TAI CHI

CALORIE CONSUMPTION. Tai Chi consumes significant numbers of calories (about 320 per hour of exercise) while leaving the practitioner refreshed, relaxed and reinvigorated.  (More likely to carry out physical activities that will consume even more calories!) 

MUSCLE TISSUE. Tai Chi tones and develops muscle tissue without creating excessive muscle bulk.  Muscle Tissue uses more calories than fat tissue even when in resting state, so the overall calorie consumption levels of the body go up making it easier to balance the calorie equation.

CARDIOVASCULAR FITNESS. The bent knee position of Tai Chi used in the AATC has a cardiovascular loading of around 60 to 80 percent.  This is an ideal level for developing the cardiovascular system without risk or fatigue.

RELAXATION. Tai Chi aids in relaxation.  Stress and anxiety often manifest themselves as hunger, which makes weight management more difficult.

REDUCTION IN FALLS RISK.  Tai Chi has been shown to be the most effective exercise system in the reduction of falls risk. This is a significant problem in our society with one in three hospital beds being occupied by falls related injuries at any one time.  Those with weight issues are more at risk of falls.  Tai Chi movements require full rotation of joints, without force, in a slow gentle manner.  This helps increase balance and coordination and maintains the joint range of motion.

PROPER POSTURAL TECHNIQUE.  The spinal techniques in Tai Chi reduce pressure on the vertebral column and ensure its proper alignment reducing the chance of crushed vertebra, “slipped” disc and other spinal problems.  Tai Chi teaches correct postures that reduce the pressure being placed on joints (which are more at risk in those with weight issues).  Posture also keeps the centre of gravity between the feet and ensures that walking is not a high-risk controlled fall, which may have jarring effects that aggravate joint problems. Tai Chi also teaches proper gait through its stepping on the square techniques and emphasises separation of foot placement and transfer of weight.  Together all this dramatically improves the chance of handling processes such as walking safely and effectively.  Techniques for reduction of stress carried in calf muscles also makes walking less tiring.

REDUCED EXERCISE INJURY RISK.  When overweight the bodies joint and spinal systems are already under strain and vigorous exercise may cause injury.  The slow movement of Tai Chi, the development of body awareness and the attention to sound postural technique all reduce the risk of injury.  Also, Tai Chi tones the muscles without exhausting them when muscles are exhausted muscular control and coordination is reduced which increases the risk of injury. 

QI GONG BENEFITS. Qi gong techniques that support the Stomach, Spleen and Small intestine meridian can be incorporated within the practice of Tai Chi.

RESPIRATORY FITNESS. In teaching Tai Chi in the AATC the proper use of the lung diaphragm in breathing is emphasised.  The student is also corrected in posture so that the lungs are not compressed and taught how to release muscular tension in the shoulders, chest, back and abdomen that might otherwise restrict breathing.  The effective vital capacity of the lungs is thereby increased.  Breathing deepens and slows, which not only stimulates the relaxation response, but also makes the breathing process much more energy efficient.   

SELF ESTEEM. Those with weight issues are susceptible to low self-esteem and even depression because of the negative effects of excess weight on their lifestyle and quality of life.   Exercise, generally, has been shown to have a positive effect on depression and levels of optimism, as has meditation.  There are particular postural techniques used in Tai Chi that have a positive effect on the feeling of wellbeing. Also, while Tai Chi is not competitive there is no reason why the Osteoporosis student cannot achieve a level of Tai Chi performance that is admired by fellow students and the general public.

ONGOING VALUE.  Tai Chi is also likely to be the exercise that can be best maintained throughout all stages of life. 

QUALITY OF LIFE – Where the need to exercise is seen as yet another imposition imposed by the need to manage excess weight the time spent on exercise can be resented and the activity unenjoyable.  Tai Chi is not just an exercise it is an art form with its own philosophy. Students can derive enjoyment and satisfaction at the same time as satisfying their exercise needs.

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