“I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving”
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
PART THREE – IS IT HARMFUL?
So. Instead of starting this article off by, once again, extolling the virtues of Tai Chi let’s consider why some people might feel fearful of practising it.
Some of the things one could imagine going through a potential player’s mind:
“Will it hurt my bad shoulder/knee/ankle etc?”
“I’m frightened I might trip or fall”
“I’ve been told to avoid any stress on this joint and to rest it as much as possible”
Movement is one of the key things that define life on earth (or anywhere else should it exist). Lack of it is one of the key factors of death. Don’t give up on moving!
Of course, there are times when movement can be harmful. It’s not going to do you much good waving a freshly broken arm about, like a football rattle. Nor is anyone going to be encouraged to hop on a sprained ankle. It’s why we immobilise breaks and suture wounds and the list goes on on and on. BUT – none of these examples becomes a permanent situation and when the time is right we get the part moving again. That’s all a matter of common sense, or so you might think.
Following an episode of pain and required inactivity not everyone, unfortunately, has the same motivation to get going again. This can sometimes reach extreme levels of what’s known as ‘Fear Avoidance’. It can be a bit like the message, “If it hurts to move, don’t” keeps playing over and over on a loop in the brain. This vicious cycle can sometimes be difficult to break out of and may require very careful and expert handling. I remember, many years ago and in my professional capacity, seeing a young boy of about nine years old who had hurt his knee. He refused to bend it and this had persisted for weeks – a classic case of fear avoidance. There was no reason to suspect anything serious and it was no longer painful but, whatever we tried,he could not be persuaded to move it. In the end we threw him in a swimming pool and magically his knee was forgotten and started moving again (fear of drowning was stronger than fear of moving). That’s one version of expert handling! Not that I would recommend anyone to try repeating this.
In this Newsletter a couple of years ago I wrote this:
I have come across those who are worried that they might damage their fragile bodies by practising TC for health. This especially relates to those with limited motion in their joints, most often due to arthritic changes. I discovered in 1993 that my right knee was significantly arthritic and over the ensuing years it became obvious that my pain-free walking distance was reducing. Not exactly great news for a keen rambler. I had a real worry that taking up TC again in 2014 might be detrimental for this offending joint. I need not have worried. My walking distance has improved considerably over the last two years To my conventional scientific brain this makes no sense, but at least it shows that I need have had no fears that Tai Chi would be risky.
I have come across individuals in our classes who are so ingrained with the idea that all pain signifies harm and have developed, on this basis, a state of fear of moving. Then there’s the ‘no gain without pain’ brigade who will thrash their bodies to the limit in order to achieve some goal or other. I haven’t come across any of those in the classes I attend. But, the age-old saying, ‘use it or lose it’ comes to mind, and is very true. So what is my advice to those who fear harming themselves by practising TC?
Giving a very brief overview, with joints of the body, let’s consider three types of pain:
- a) Constant, unremitting whatever position the joint is in.
- b) Intermittent, only at the end of its range.
- c) Intermittent, during its available range but not at the end of range.
If your joint(s) are only painful when moving, at the end of available range (type b), then try taking them gently at first, say 10 times, to where the pain begins. Make a mental note of how long, if at all, this pain persists afterwards. If we look at both ends of the scale there are two reactions you can encounter:
- The pain might disappear immediately after the movements – there is no harm done here.
- The pain persists for hours after the movements – It’s likely that continuing with this degree of end-of-range force on the joint will be harmful. But it doesn’t mean that all motion will be harmful.
Your responses may well be somewhere in between these extremes and then it becomes a matter of common sense as to whether it is safe to move in this way. If your pain persists but is diminishing and disappears over the next hour or two and is no worse the next time you apply the same movements you may well find that over time your range increases and your pain at end of range decreases. You are safely improving your function. I’m sure many of our group have experienced this.
If you are in either of the other two categories then you need some form of medical diagnosis and from there determine, by careful application, if you are making any progress, or at least remain no worse, with exercises. Of course, your own judgement is paramount.
If you are worried about doing harm to yourself then I think the above advice should be considered when practising any from of exercise, including Tai Chi.
Tai Chi is also a very big subject. There are many variations of the form, some more vigorous than others and vice versa. It’s even possible for it to be modified to a sitting version. Then, of course, there are all the myriad of associated exercises such as the Chi Kungs and Eight Fine Treasures. In all that there has to be something for nearly everyone.
There is really no secret to exercise. There is massive inertia to exercise but NOT exercising is often a far easier option on a day to day basis. Movement is life. Find some movement you enjoy. Can do, not must do?
The world famous Harvard University recently released a poster from its ‘Harvard Health’ series from which I have taken the text below, and which lists what they claim to be…
FIVE OF THE BEST EXERCISES YOU CAN EVER DO
These ‘workouts’ can do wonders for your health. They’ll help keep your weight under control, improve your balance and range of motion, strengthen your bones, protect your joints, prevent bladder control problems and even ward off memory loss
You might call swimming the perfect workout, the buoyancy of the water supports your body and takes the strain off painful joints so you can move more fluidly.
- Tai Chi
This Chinese martial art that combines movement and relaxation is good for both mind and body. It is made up of a series of graceful movements, one transitioning smoothly into the next.
- Strength Training
If you believe that strength training is a macho, brawny activity, then think again. Lifting light weights won’t bulk up your muscles but it will keep them strong.
Walking is simple yet powerful. It can help you stay trim, improve cholesterol levels, strengthen bones, keep blood pressure in check, lift your mood and lower your risk for a number of diseases.
- Kegel Exercises
These exercises won’t help you look better, but they strengthen the pelvic floor muscles that support the bladder. Strong pelvic floor muscles can go a long way to preventing incontinence.
So there we have it – a new version of your ‘Five a Day’. And look what comes in at number two on the list. Now that can’t be bad!
“You can practice tai chi if you are fat or thin, healthy or just out of bed after major surgery, young, middle aged or very old.”
“Tai chi is about how you feel not about how you look”