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Wheelchair Tai Chi Offers Fitness Option to Those with Limited Mobility

Alhough he does not use a wheelchair for mobility, Dr. Zibin Guo used the device to demonstrate an innovative Tai Chi technique for a group in China.

Posted: May 29, 2009

Studies overwhelmingly point to regular physical exercise as the crucial medicine for what ails Americans. Physicians have a hard time convincing even healthy patients to take action, but it’s a much harder sell for those with limited movement caused by physical disabilities. They often lack the self-confidence to begin a physical fitness plan, and it’s easy to understand why. They face transportation obstacles to visit an exercise facility. If they can get to the facility, accessing the building and equipment is often difficult or impossible, and fees are often high, says Dr. Zibin Guo, a medical anthropologist in The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Geography. He says appropriate and interesting exercise is often not available to this group.

“Physical inactivity often further deteriorates the general health condition for these individuals, and it also tends to make them more reliant on professional medical care rather than taking a proactive approach by engaging self-care, including medications to deal with their health issues,” Guo says. As a result, the cost of care, treatment, rehabilitation and reduced productivity totals a whopping $300 billion a year in the United States alone.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor has a fresh idea—wheelchair Tai Chi. Tai Chi is one of the ancient Chinese martial arts, a noncompetitive self-paced system of gentle physical exercise that Guo has adapted for wheelchair-dependent individuals in the United States and China. For his efforts, The Tennessee Higher Education Commission recently named Guo a faculty recipient of the state Love Award, recognizing his commitment to community service.

He says wheelchair Tai Chi is one of the simplest ways for people who use wheelchairs to improve their physical and mental health. His holistic approach has been embraced in China, where he was invited by the Beijing 2008 Olympic Committee and the All China Federation for People with Disabilities to conduct a wheelchair demonstration for the International Paralympics Committee one day before the opening ceremony of the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.

Guo’s technique is benefitting people in Chattanooga, such as a 70-year-old woman who suffered a stroke seven years ago as the result of high blood pressure. Her left arm was partially paralyzed, and, throughout the years, she fell twice. She was confined to a wheelchair for more than two years and unable to walk even a short distance.