The Positive Effects of Ai Chi Postures

Ai Chi movements can be used to improve:

  • Chronic pain
  • Arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS)
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Balance deficits
  • Diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Other neurological and orthopedic problems

Ai Chi can be used in groups or individually, requires no equipment, and allows the hair and face to stay dry. This head-out position is important for non swimmers who would benefit from exercise in the water.

Additionally, because the philosophy and breathing in Ai Chi are similar to those of land-based Tai Chi, many of the benefits seen in Tai Chi are applicable to Ai Chi.

Many of the Ai Chi benefits come from breathing and exercise, as well as effects related to the relaxed contemplative state.

The expanded range and cardiovascular benefits that arise from Ai Chi training have proved beneficial for patients with chronic pain, arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, and balance impairments.

Ai Chi can also promote relaxation with people who are coping with high stress levels.

Practicing slow movement techniques and diaphragmatic breathing has the following effects:

  • Increases relaxation
  • Decreases muscular tension
  • Improves symptom management

It also facilitates recovery from problems associated with:

  • Low back pain and scoliosis
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Musculoskeletal surgery
  • Sports injuries

These techniques have also been used successfully to improve balance and improve symptoms associated with chronic disorders such as:

  • Rheumatologic diseases
  • Fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS)
  • Arthritis
  •  Tai Chi has been show to improve:
  • Osteoarthritis symptoms
  • Self-efficacy
  • Tension levels
  • Satisfaction with general health status

Tai chi has also been shown to increase lower-extremity muscle strength and endurance. Tai chi and Ai Chi follow the same precepts of slow, fluid, rhythmic movement with controlled breathing that can positively affect postural stability and falls in the elderly. Several studies have examined the effects of Tai Chi on balance and on the risk of falls in older people.

In one survey of people age 70 and older, those who participated in Tai Chi training reported improvements in their daily activities, whereas others who participated in balance training alone reported no such improvements (Natural Standard).

A 2004 study clearly demonstrated that Tai Chi training could lead to statistically significant improvements in functional balance in older persons. In another study, researchers observed that Tai Chi practice is valuable for improving physical balance.

Long-term practice of Tai Chi can improve muscular strength in the lower body, particularly around the knees and ankles, as much as long-term jogging, according to another published study.

Another study found that Tai Chi participants had stronger feelings of self-efficacy and less fear of falling than did older adults who did not practice Tai Chi. These findings are good news for elderly who are looking for gentle movement alternatives that provide powerful conditioning benefits.

Dynamic balance ability is an independent predictor of quality of life so if older-adult practitioners of Tai Chi are stronger, feel more confident, and experience less fear than their peers do, they are likely to experience a higher quality of life than those who do not have the same level of conditioning.

Ai Chi creates musculoskeletal benefits that are derived from the effects of:

  • Buoyancy
  • Gentle and controlled movement
  • Coordinated breathing

People who experience back, neck, or shoulder pain unresponsive to other interventions may find respiration to be the missing link. A key part of many head, neck, and shoulder pain syndromes may be secondary inspiratory muscle overuse.

Diaphragmatic breathing can cultivate:

  • Relaxation
  • Myofascial function
  • Lumbopelvic stabilization

The stress response to pain traditionally increases muscle tension, which usually leads to more pain. Diaphragmatic breathing can decrease the stress response.

The Ai Chi coordination of breathing and movement allows muscles to produce graceful, flowing movements of the trunk and extremities. This activity can lead to development of core control and alignment for all movement, not only Ai Chi movements.

Alignment, balance, and stabilization skills can be improved with properly trained slow movement techniques. Balance learned in the water (an unstable medium) translates well to land.

Along with arthrokinematic effects, the active Ai Chi motions recruit specific muscle groups and preserve the contractile property of soft tissues. Relaxation done before range of motion will lower or eliminate monosynaptic spinal reflex.

Submerging the joints lessens the joint compression and edema. The properties of water combined with the Ai Chi movements can improve the range of motion and overall mobility. From a musculoskeletal viewpoint, range of motion is an effective means of maintaining the integrity of connective and soft-tissue structures.

Positive cardiovascular effects have been found in studies of Tai Chi training. Studies of physiological measures during cycle ergometry have shown that oxygen uptake and work rate in the Tai Chi group were much higher than in the control group.

Other studies have shown increased cardio-respiratory function, soft-tissue flexibility, and increased strength in community-dwelling older persons who participated in Tai Chi one to four times per week.

Practice of the slow movement techniques and diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to:

  •  Activate the parasympathetic inhibitory nervous system
  •  Decrease heart rate
  •  Decrease blood pressure
  •  Improve respiratory and cardiovascular function
  •  Decrease oxygen consumption
  •  Create a neutral respiratory quotient
  •  Decrease blood lactate and blood lipid levels

Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to decrease autonomic instability and improve heart rate variability.

A stress response produces increased respiratory rate, decreased tidal volume, and a shift to thoracic breathing. Ai Chi breathing can inhibit neural responses.

Eliciting a parasympathetic or inhibitory response will:

  •  Enhance vagal modulation
  •  Decrease heart rate
  •  Improve respiratory synkinesis
  •  Improving breath function

People with respiratory impairments that affect their ventilation can benefit significantly from the synchronized Ai Chi breathing cycle.

Research has shown that implementation of diaphragmatic breathing exercises decreased postoperative complications in patients who underwent cardiac or pulmonary surgery.

Decreased blood pressure and anxiety are a result of the relaxation that accompanies diaphragmatic breathing. Essential hypertension (high blood pressure of unknown cause) is common in our society.

The Ai Chi breathing mode of treatment is beneficial in decreasing essential hypertension. Research has shown that blood pressure decreases by 3 to 15 mm Hg in studies of regular diaphragmatic breathing exercises.

  • The practice of slow movement techniques with diaphragmatic breathing
  •  Increases alpha electroencephalogram activity
  •  Produces right hemispheric activation
  •  Decreases sympathetic nervous system arousal and increases awareness
  •  Decreases hypothalamic pituitary adrenal activation

The breathing, however, must flow and be continuous. Breath holding creates harmful effects on the heart and overall health, including higher blood pressure and a decrease in blood oxygen levels.

It also improves the psychological state associated with chronic diseases, anxiety and depressive disorders, anger management, and stress-related dysrhythmias.

Stress can contribute to problems such as:

  •  Back pain Neck tension, headaches Fibrocystic nodules
  •  Muscle spasms Indigestion, heartburn
  •  Stomach ulcers
  •  Shoulder and upper-chest pain Insomnia

Disturbed sleep patterns

  •  Anxiety
  •  Depression
  •  Breathlessness
  •  Nausea
  •  Fatigue

Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to decrease the stress response and reduce depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

Stress increases muscular tension and vasoconstriction, thus decreasing blood flow throughout the body.

Tension in the neck causes muscular neck pain and headaches, tension in the stomach affects digestion, and tension in the body increases blood pressure.

Relaxation through diaphragmatic breathing reduces blood pressure and the workload on the heart and decreases muscular tension.

Researchers attribute gains in brain function to the amount of oxygen that the brain receives during movement. The brain uses the glucose that it receives (delivered by the oxygen) as fuel for thought.

Movement increases production of a brain chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which stimulates the growth of nerve cells in the brain and curbs the development of Alzheimer disease as well as other age-related brain degeneration.

Water, movement, and music are used to encourage a state of relaxed awareness. With increased awareness, the breathing and relaxation learned in Ai Chi can be transferred to other life situations. If the breathing and relaxation associated with Ai Chi can be used to aid healing when they are simply remembered, the actual Ai Chi session is doubly valuable.

Practicing slow movements with diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to decrease:

  •  Epinephrine
  •  Cortisol
  •  Serum growth hormone
  •  Thyroid-stimulating hormone
  •  Prolactin
  •  Adrenocorticotropic hormone
  •  Beta-endorphin

An endogenous opioid is an endorphin that is a product of the endocrine system. It is a hormone that has a biochemical similarity to drugs like morphine.

The endorphins are best known for their analgesic qualities and their assistance with mood control. Other effects that are more widespread include the regulation of appetite, temperature, and respiration.

Improvements in immune system functioning, weight maintenance, and overall disposition because of hormone regulation can be side benefits from the practice of Ai Chi.

Reference: Sova Routh. Ai Chi, Ch. 7 in Aquatic Exercise for Rehabilitation and Training: . Lori Thein Brody (Ed), Paula Richley Geigle (Ed). Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, USA. 2010.