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Diabetes and Taoist Tai Chi

An article on Taoist Tai Chi and diabetes appeared in the Spring 2004 edition of Conquest, the national journal of Diabetes Australia.

Taoist Tai Chi and diabetes (PDF) 329 KB

HTML version of this article follows.

Ancient Chinese Art of Health: Taoist Tai Chi and Diabetes

"How is it your blood sugar stays so low and so even?" Barbara Zuegg's doctor beamed at her. "I don't know", Barbara shrugged. "Perhaps it's because I do Tai Chi."

When Barbara explained what Tai Chi was and showed him some Tai Chi moves, her doctor was impressed. She had recently been diagnosed with Type 1 insulin-dependent diabetes. However, he agreed that practising Tai Chi was no doubt why Barbara had the blood sugar levels of an old pro, rather than the erratic figures one would expect from a newcomer trying to balance diet, insulin and exercise.

Tai Chi is a physical activity option that has many appealing features. As a slow, gentle series of movements, it can be done by people of all ages and it is an "exercise for life" which can even be performed in a seated position. There is no need to be in good physical shape when you start learning this ancient Chinese art of health: stamina, strength and balance develop gradually as you progress.

Barbara, who is a member of the Taoist Tai Chi Society in Perth, Western Australia, likes Tai Chi because it provides a predictable level of physical activity. For people with Type 1 diabetes, the predictability of the effects of food and exercise versus the amount of insulin taken is crucial to allow getting on with normal activities without fear of blood sugar levels dropping too low.

"One afternoon", Barbara says, "I found I had a blood sugar level of 13.2. Extremely cross with myself, I marched off to do some Tai Chi. Forty-five minutes, later all my anger had gone and my blood sugar had dropped to 8.0. And I had also improved my circulation, which is another thing people with diabetes have to watch."

The slow, controlled Tai Chi moves provide a surprisingly good physical workout. In fact doing the Tai Chi form is a moderate aerobic exercise, about the same as walking at a pace of six kilometres an hour. As practitioners develop their skill, it is possible to do more stretching and to increase the exercise load.

Dr Bruce McFarlane, medical director of the Taoist Tai Chi Society's International Health Recovery Centre in Ontario, Canada, agrees that Tai Chi has many benefits as a form of physical activity for people with diabetes. "The diabetic practising Taoist Tai Chi will experience the same benefits the rest of us do - improved balance and flexibility, increased aerobic capacity and a slowing of the loss of muscle strength seen with ageing", Dr McFarlane says.

"In addition, for people with diabetes in particular, Tai Chi helps to achieve and maintain an ideal body weight, a goal not easily achieved by the person with adult-onset diabetes. It also helps to improve control of elevated blood sugar levels."

There are a number of other benefits as well, Dr McFarlane adds. These include: cardiovascular benefits of a decrease in the level of low density (so-called bad) cholesterol and an increase in the level of high density (good) cholesterol; a normalising effect on blood pressure which is another risk factor (like diabetes) for stroke, kidney and heart disease; and improvements in mood and reduced risk of depression.

The difficulty of changing life patterns such as smoking, physical inactivity and eating habits is enormous and yet such changes are crucially important for the person with diabetes. Dr McFarlane points out that the collegial nature of the practice of Tai Chi makes it much more likely that the person will succeed in establishing a life-long rhythm of daily physical exercise and, more importantly, actually enjoy it.

For Barbara Zuegg, it is now 15 years since she took up Taoist Tai Chi, and ten years since her Type 1 diabetes was diagnosed, and she is still going strong.

Peter Cook, PhD
President, Taoist Tai Chi Society of Australia, a volunteer non-profit association.