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Wheelchair Tai Chi Offers Fitness Option to Those with Limited Mobility

Posted: May 29, 2009
Dr. Zibin Guo demonstrates wheelchair Tai Chi

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.

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The woman decided to participate in a small study of the effects of wheelchair Tai Chi, directed by Guo with University of Tennessee at Chattanooga faculty members Dr. Nancy Fell (physical therapy) and Dr. Janet Secrest (nursing) and Dr. Glenn Haban, a neuropsychologist at Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation in Chattanooga. The study is among the first in the country to explore the potential benefits of practicing a simple seated Tai Chi program for people with ambulatory disability resulting from health problems or injuries.

Participants who qualified were unable to walk independently 50 feet or more with an assistive device in one minute or less. Six women and four men signed on for two months of free classes. They met twice a week for 45-minute Tai Chi sessions. Classes were held at the new Fitness Center at Siskin Hospital, located on the main campus in downtown Chattanooga.

At the conclusion of the classes, the woman's improvement was dramatic. She began walking and treading stairs unassisted, and she began to regain use of her left arm. With her strength and mobility vastly improved, she gives all the credit to the seated Tai Chi method.

“I made so much progress, and I’ve enjoyed it,” she says. “I’ve been inspired by what I’ve seen others doing, and it helps me. And they say what I did helped them.”

Many of the participants reported improved stamina and said they enjoyed the social nature of the classes. Though his professional reaction to the study is one of guarded optimism, Haban says Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation is committed to continuing the study. He remains hopeful that using Tai Chi as an intervention will positively impact patients’ functional strengths. “The minimum that could be said in this study is that it points to the need for further research to be done,” Haban says. From a neuropsychological perspective, Haban says three factors are needed to promote health, as well as recovery following a significant illness: physical activity, mental stimulation, and social involvement. Too often, he says, circumstances limit these factors, and patients suffer as a result. “Tai Chi was able to intervene on all three dimensions,” Haban says. “Also, a person’s belief system about their illness will affect their outcome. That is, when a person believes they cannot get any better, they stop progressing. Toward that end, Tai Chi can foster hope and the person’s belief that improvement in their status is possible. The significance of the study is that it provides some evidence that this relatively simple and inexpensive intervention can help improve a person’s functional status.”