When arthritic joints ache, the last thing you may want to do is work out. But a new study shows that a certain kind of exercise actually can relieve arthritis symptoms fairly quickly—no drugs involved. The secret weapon: Tai chi, a gentle form of martial arts.
The study participants included 247 patients (mostly women) who had osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or another type of arthritis. Lead researcher Leigh Callahan, PhD, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Thurston Arthritis Research Center, told me that after only eight weeks of twice-weekly sessions of tai chi, participants experienced significantly reduced joint pain, stiffness and fatigue… improved ability to extend their reach while maintaining balance (which can be challenging for arthritis patients)… better sleep… and an increased sense of well-being.
For some specific moves that can give readers a taste of tai chi, I contacted Paul Lam, MD, a family physician, tai chi master and coauthor of Overcoming Arthritis: How to Relieve Pain and Restore Mobility Through a Unique Tai Chi Program. Dr. Lam suggested that as you practice the two techniques below, you try to move slowly, continuously and gracefully (as you become more familiar with the movements, they will start to flow)… breathe slowly, naturally and easily… and never lock your joints. (Of course, as with any new exercise activity, get your doctor’s OK before you begin.) Tai chi moves to try…
Spine stretch. To start: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent… or sit in a sturdy chair. Hold your hands out in front of you, about eight inches from your torso, elbows somewhat bent, left hand at collarbone height (palm facing down) and right hand at belly-button height (palm facing up). Palms should be approximately 12 inches apart, as if holding the top and bottom of a beach ball. Move: Slowly raise your right arm, bringing it overhead and turning your right palm up toward the ceiling… at the same time, lower your left arm until your left hand is near your left hip, left palm still facing toward the floor. (Both elbows should stay slightly bent throughout.) Pause, visualizing the gentle stretch that your spine is getting. Then slowly return to the initial position, but with the right hand on top and the left hand on the bottom of the imaginary beach ball. Repeat the move on the other side, raising your left arm and lowering your right arm. Video demo: Visit ArthritisToday.org .
Arm circles. To start: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent… or sit in a sturdy chair. Arms are at your sides, elbows slightly bent. Move: Slowly lift your arms, opening them out to your sides and turning the palms upward. Keeping elbows somewhat bent, continue raising your arms until they create a large circle overhead. Then slowly lower your arms, bringing your palms together as your hands move down past your face to heart level… then return to starting position and repeat.
To learn more: Check for tai chi classes at your local community center, health clubs or martial arts schools (be sure to ask if the instructor has experience in working with arthritis patients)… and/or contact your local Arthritis Foundation chapter (Arthritis.org) for referrals to approved tai chi instructors, Dr. Lam suggested.