Last year, after running for 30 years and in 19 Peachtree Road Races, Chris Lahowitch heard her doctors say she had to give it up for good. Her arthritic knees couldn't take it.
Even in the midst of discouragement, Lahowitch, a 63-year-old psychotherapist from Decatur, was determined to find an alternative exercise method. That's when she discovered tai chi, a Chinese martial art that focuses on fluid motion and meditation. Lahowitch enrolled in tai chi classes in January and immediately started experiencing less pain in her knees.
"It was like a miracle," she said. "I took tai chi with the intention of substituting running, and after only six months it actually helped me start running again."
Dr. Patience White, chief public health officer with the national Arthritis Foundation and a practicing rheumatologist, said success stories like this are common. Tai chi is beneficial, White said, because it does both things required to diminish pain —- stretches and strengthening all the muscles around the joints.
"I recommend it all the time," she said. "As a doctor, you want to recommend something to people that you know is evidence-based. It has been studied and shown to be beneficial to people with arthritis and not harm them."
In a study released in June by the George Institute for International Health in Australia, researchers found tai chi to have positive health benefits for those with musculoskeletal pain. Most participants enrolled in a 12-week class, and reported their level of pain and disability after completing the program. The results suggested that tai chi reduced pain and disability.
"This research should reassure people with musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis to seek exercise to relieve the pain," said Amanda Hall, an author of the study. "The fact that tai chi is inexpensive, convenient, enjoyable and conveys other psychological and social benefits supports the use of this type of intervention for pain conditions."
Earlier this year, the Arthritis Foundation, which is headquartered in Atlanta, released a tai chi DVD for those who would rather practice at home than attend classes. According to White, the DVD shows arthritis patients how to do the exercises and allows them to learn at their own pace.
Cate Morrill, a tai chi instructor in Atlanta, says nearly half her students attend classes because they have arthritis or joint pain. Morrill is the director of Rising Phoenix Tai Chi studio, and she also teaches physical therapy doctoral candidates at Emory University how to use tai chi in their physical therapy practice.
"We move them slowly and smoothly," she said. "This pumps and creates synovial fluid. It lubricates the joints like oil lubricates a car."
Lahowitch attends Morrill's class on Thursday evenings and practices every day at home. Lahowitch said that before she became involved in the art of tai chi she tried yoga and physical therapy, but neither helped as much. She said she enjoys tai chi because it focuses on the pain in her knees and it manifests the "chi," or life energy, in her body.
"I've seen an incredible change. ... I didn't expect it," she said. "I might even run a marathon."
Lahowitch had decided to run in last Saturday's Peachtree Road Race before suddenly coming down with bronchitis. But, she plans to continue tai chi and running, and she hopes to start training for next year's road race soon.
"I am going to get my 20th T-shirt if it kills me," she said.
Learn about tai chi
Take a free class: Kaiser Permanente will sponsor a class with instructor David Dunn 9-10 a.m. Saturday, Piedmont Park. Order an instructional DVD: Log on to www.arthritis.org. DVDs are $19.95-$29.95.
Some area tai chi classes
Atlanta area Chinese Shaolin Centers in
Marietta, Norcross and Virginia-Highland:
Rising Phoenix Tai Chi studio, 1083 Austin Ave., N.E., 404-525-6466, www.risingphoenixtaichi.com
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.