Certainly the social aspects of Taijiquan can keep us young at heart. It’s always fun to get together and practice with students and friends. I am sure many of us have experience feeling like a kid again while at Taiji summer camp. But in addition to this, is there something about the nature of Taiji exercise that could alter the physiological processes of aging? Researchers in Taiwan believe this to be the case. Doctors from the Chinese Medical University, Taichung, Taiwan, set out to test whether Taijiquan would affect the production of “Hematopoietic Stem and Progenitor Cells” which are key biomarkers of aging and reported on their findings in the journal Cell Transplantation.
The researchers, Ho and colleagues, managed to recruit 32 participants for the study and set up three groups for comparison: taiji, brisk Walking and a group with no regular exercise habits. The average of participants was 21 years, 40% female and 60% male. You might ask, why so young? As it turns out variability in aging biomarkers increases with age, which means basically, as people get older we start to see that rates of biological aging can differ drastically. By measuring the biomarkers of young adults there is likely be less variability within and between individuals, which makes for results easier to interpret.
So, what were the regimens? The brisk walking group walked 2 or more times per week, totaling more than 2.5 hours a week across the course of a year. The sedentary group, which did not exercise before the study, continued to have no specific exercise routine and did not engage in physical activity more than 2.5 hours per week. The Taijiquan group met to practice at least twice a week for no less than 2.5 hours during the same one year period. The core of the Taiji groups practice consisted of warmup exercises, Taijiquan Bafa, also known as the 8 essentials of Taiji, followed by standing meditation and breathing exercises. It is interesting to note that this regimen contains no complex choreography; the Bafa are iterative in nature, similar to individual qigong movements, and very easy to learn. These same basic exercises are often taught by Dr. Yang at his camps.
The study found that only the Taiji group displayed significantly higher CD34+ stem cell counts, but only after the first 2 months of practice, suggesting that the duration of practice is also an important factor. The researchers in this study believe that the increase in stem cell production may be related to the balancing effect that Taiji has on the nervous system and its capacity to increase blood flow to organs and bones where stem cells are produced. While these results are certainly promising, the numbers of individuals involved is very small, so follow up studies are definitely needed. Still, this is encouraging news; whether you want to call it internal alchemy or biochemistry this study has affirmed a bit of traditional wisdom about the benefits of Taiji and built on our understanding of how Taiji practice affects our physiology. Look forward to seeing you all at camp!