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Tai chi master hoping his 'moving medication' cuts health-care costs
Regular practice of the Chinese martial art can be used to treat and even prevent a wide range of illnesses
By James A. Fussell
McClatchy Newspapers
Page 20
2009-08-20 12:17 AM
Bill Douglas has two words for a country desperate to cut its skyrocketing health care costs.

Tai chi.

He's not kidding.

"If you look at a Kaiser Permanente study that says that 70 percent of illnesses are caused by stress, you're talking about a potential savings of trillions of U.S. dollars, year after year if we teach our citizens effective stress-management techniques on a massive scale."

For decades Douglas has believed that the regular practice of the Chinese martial art, meant to unblock the flow of energy though the body, can be used to treat and even prevent a wide range of illnesses.

The medical world is beginning to agree with him.

In a few weeks, Douglas will give a presentation to the National Institutes of Health focusing on tai chi as a modern health solution, the first ever. And thanks to what he calls a "groundbreaking tectonic shift in health care," he's taking some persuasive ammunition with him: a stamp of approval from Harvard Medical School.

The May 2009 Harvard Health Publication said that tai chi, often described as moving meditation, should more aptly be called moving medication.

Douglas is the 52-year-old tai chi instructor who started World Tai Chi Day 11 years ago in Kansas City, Missouri.; the celebration is now observed in more than 65 countries. He has written the country's No. 1 selling book on the exercise, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Tai Chi." He teaches a tai chi class at the Landon Center on Aging at KU Medical Center and has been a national source on the ancient art for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Reader's Digest.

"There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice ... has value in treating or preventing many health problems," it said. "And you can get started even if you aren't in top shape, or the best of health."

The Harvard publication included the latest research on how tai chi could benefit patients with arthritis, breast cancer, heart disease, hypertension, Parkinson's disease, stroke, even sleep problems and low bone density.

"This is big," Douglas said. "It's like riding a tsunami wave into Washington, D.C."

Douglas thinks tai chi should be taught in hospitals, senior centers, even public schools. He's working on a grant to take tai chi classes to seniors around the city.

His students have felt the benefits.

Josephine Hicks, 57, of Kansas City, Missouri, says tai chi has greatly reduced her pain.

"I've had arthritis in my knees and shoulders, and it has helped me be able to move easier," she said.

Nan Bowers of Shawnee, Kan., is also a tai chi fan.

"It's wonderful," she said. "I'm 82 years old, and it's helped me with balance and breathing. It just makes me feel relaxed. When Bill was giving the lesson it was almost like I was floating above myself looking down. It was just that I was in so much comfort."

There are other benefits. One study showed tai chi could boost immune system resistance to viral infection by 50 percent and improve sleep quality.

"Everything goes back to the fact that we are accumulating stress in our lives," Douglas said. "Instead of trying to treat the sick leaves on my tree, I decided to go to the root - the stress - and treat that."

For Douglas the struggle to get tai chi's full potential recognized is a personal one. He remembers when doctors dismissed it and remembers his mother and father, who both died in their early 50s from stress-related heart attacks. He plans to avoid a similar fate.

He tried to share tai chi with his parents, but there was no validation of its effectiveness at the time, and they didn't stick with it.

Douglas gave his mother a book on Chinese philosophy a day before she went in for a balloon angioplasty.

"Apparently she had a premonition of her death because after she passed away in surgery my sister found the book I had loaned her and there was a note in it that said, 'I wish I could go back a few years and learn the arts of relaxation junior had tried to teach me. I so would have loved to see my grandchildren grow up.'

"That note has steeled me to take tai chi into the halls of medical power when some people were kind of laughing at it."

Douglas began doing tai chi 30 years ago.

"I was going through a lot of what people are going through today - job changes, job stress and insomnia," he said. "I was feeling overwhelmed. Today on all levels of our life we are being pushed through faster and faster change, and that change is stressful - even good change."

"What tai chi is designed to do is to cleanse all the stress static out of the mind, the heart and the body," he said.

Douglas says he has found his peace and his power and has taught it to as many people as he can. Now he wants to make sure the medical community understands the full benefits of the ancient martial art, so that even more people can experience them .

ON THE WEB

At Bill Douglas' World Tai Chi Day Web site (www.worldtaichiday.org) visitors will find a medical research library where they can look up almost 100 common health conditions and find the latest medical research on how tai chi may help treat or prevent those conditions.

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