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Stroke Smart Magazine

March/April 2008

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Tai Chi for the Mind and Body

By Pete Lewis

After his stroke, Herb Stead couldn’t talk or move. Fortunately, he was treated with the clot-busting drug t-PA at the hospital within the critical three-hour window after symptom onset. The quick response may have saved his life. Still, Stead’s stroke left one
side of his body weak.

“When I stood up, I’d tilt to one side,” Stead said. “I’ve always been an athletic person, and felt like my body had let me down.”

Stead took a proactive approach to his recovery. He began lifting weights and enrolled in a tai chi class at the Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina, Minn.

Tai chi is a form of exercise, meditation and martial arts that has been practiced in China for thousands of years. It consists of a series of slow, gentle movements designed to restore health and calm the mind. Tai chi has become popular in the United States
because it is a low-impact, low-intensity exercise that can be performed by people of various abilities. And because tai chi can improve balance and coordination, lower blood pressure, promote relaxation, and improve mood, the exercise may be especially
well suited for stroke survivors.

Fairview Southdale Hospital has sponsored a tai chi class for stroke survivors and caregivers for more than six years. The class meets once a week for one hour, but students are encouraged to practice on their own.

“It’s such a gentle exercise, there are no vigorous movements, that once you learn the movements, you can practice everyday at home,” said Lindsey McDivitt, the hospital’s stroke outreach director. “If you do it every day, you really see the benefits.” People usually enroll in the class to improve their balance, but McDivitt said many discover other benefits such as stress reduction, improved concentration and increased confidence.

“It’s an exercise in relaxation,” said stroke survivor Bob Wilson, who has practiced tai chi with his wife for years. “It puts you in sort of a hypnotic state and helps you relax, concentrate and focus your mind.”

Research on the benefits of tai chi for stroke survivors is limited. But, there is much research proving the effectiveness of tai chi in other populations.

There are several forms of tai chi. Fairview Southdale’s class teaches tai chi chih, which uses fewer movements and requires less pivoting. Instructor Ruth Anne Plourde said the 20 movements may take a few months to master, but people often will see benefits after just a few times.

Not all tai chi classes are suited for older adults or stroke survivors. Plourde said you should observe any class before enrolling. She suggested looking for a class offered at a senior center or community college. And, avoid one taught at a martial arts studio, which
may be too rigorous. Always check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.

Like all aspects of recovery, tai chi requires patience and effort, but for Stead, the benefits have been worth it.

“I was searching for the peace I had before my stroke,” Stead said. “Today, I walk around with a smile inside.”



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