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Staying Sharp | Tai Chi and Sleep

Have a sleep problem? A simple tai chi routine may help.

WHEN YOU THINK OF USING MARTIAL ARTS,  it’s usually to wreak havoc among the muscular and the dim-witted—and perhaps any random masked Ninjas out causing trouble. But a new study shows that one particular martial art can also help improve your sleep. Dr. Michael Irwin, the Norman Cousins Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and director of the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, studied a group of 112 healthy, older adults between the ages of 59 and 86, randomly assigning them to two groups. One practiced 20 tai chi moves for 25 weeks, and one took classes in healthy lifestyles, including sleep hygiene, for the same period of time. At the end of the study, published in the scientific journal Sleep in July 2008, the class that performed tai chi reported a significant improvement in the quality of their sleep on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, a self-rated questionnaire.

“They took the least time to fall asleep, had fewer awakenings, and felt better rested. Overall their sleep was better,” Dr. Irwin says. “The amount of sleep across the night was longer, and they slept a greater amount of time.”

Of course, tai chi isn’t one of those Chuck-Norris-kick-butt-and-take-names fighting styles like karate or kung fu. It’s a form of breathing and slow movement—a moving meditation—developed by Chinese monks thousands of years ago. In the last two decades, boomers have discovered that it’s a perfect form of exercise for those with painful joints or who are unable to take part in high-impact  aerobics.

Some 58 percent of people age 59 and older report difficulty falling asleep a few nights a week, yet 85 percent of insomnia sufferers allow the condition to remain untreated. “Tai chi targets stress, which we know can contribute to sleep problems,” says Irwin. “And it has no significant side effects, unlike some sleep medications, which can increase the risk of falls during the night, and can have carry-over effects that impair concentration and attention during the day—especially in older adults.” As Live & Learn has reported earlier, sleep plays a central role in learning and memory. All the more reason to find strategies that help you get enough of it.

Phil Scott has written for Scientific American and New Scientist, and writes regularly for Live & Learn on brain health issues.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating the learning lifestyle.