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Article updated: 9/24/2012 6:50 AM

Practicing tai chi may promote a longer life

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By Dr. Patrick Massey

It is a well-known fact that exercise is beneficial for health, but can exercise help you live longer? Some preliminary research suggests that the practice of tai chi may affect our very DNA promoting longer life.

Tai chi like movements have been practiced for over a thousand years. There are many styles of tai chi and, today, it is practiced by millions of people around the world. Although tai chi does have pugilistic applications, most practice tai chi as a way of staying healthy and physically fit.

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Medical research has shown that tai chi is beneficial for congestive heart failure, Parkinson's disease, fibromyalgia and chronic pain, depression and anxiety. Some research suggests that the practice of tai chi can enhance the immune system, increase flexibility and improve balance. It is also beneficial for increasing joints movement in people with severe osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The practice of tai chi seems to be a complete health program … and it may also improve longevity.

In Asia, it is not unusual for masters in the martial arts to live long, healthy lives. Is it possible that the practice of tai chi can have similar results for the general population?

We know that different factors in our environment can directly affect how DNA functions. One of the mechanisms by which DNA is able to maintain itself is through a process called methylation. As we get older, the ability to methylate our DNA decreases. That exposes the DNA to damage and ultimately to aging. We know certain lifestyle choices such as chronic sun exposure, asbestos, arsenic, alcohol and especially tobacco can lead to premature aging of the body, partially through changes in DNA methylation. Reduction in methylation rates is also linked to an increased risk of common illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disease and even autism.

One recent Australian medical study, published in the medical journal Evidence -- Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, looked at DNA methylation activity in people who practiced tai chi. In this study, DNA methylation rates in a group of women who have been practicing tai chi for three years or more were compared to a control group of women who had never practiced tai chi. The ages of the women were between 45 and 80 years old. There were 237 women in the tai chi group and 263 women in the control group. What they found is that the ability to methylate DNA in the group practicing tai chi was significantly better than the control group. Their conclusions suggested that the regular practice of tai chi may result in enhanced longevity compared to control groups.

This study was preliminary and far from conclusively showing that the practice of tai chi helps you live longer. However, given the health benefits, adding tai chi to your weekly exercise routine might be worthwhile.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Health System. His website is www.alt-med.org.

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