Can Tai Chi offer the same benefits as aerobic exercise?

You may initially think how can Tai Chi even begin to compare to aerobic exercise? Slow, gentle, fluid movements, versus a heart pumping energising workout? A recent study looked at this and came up with some surprising results.

It’s no secret that I love my high intensity workouts, but I also love my yoga too. As a Reiki practitioner I can really feel and appreciate the benefits in these more “gentle” forms of exercising, and I’m a great believer in combining them both. In my line of work I often come across people who have had injuries or conditions that don’t allow them to partake in vigorous exercise, but quite often workouts such as yoga, pilates or Tai Chi can be the ideal solution. A good friend of mine teaches Tai Chi here in York, and so I was particularly interested in this recent study.

Tai Chi (full name Tai Chi Chuan) combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow, flowing movements. Originally developed as a martial art in 13th-century China,  the slow and graceful movements of Tai Chi are reported to be good for both body and mind. But could doing something so gentle really be as effective as a bout of more vigorous exercise? Dr Sarah Aldred, Dr Jet Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Nor Fadila Kasim from the University of Birmingham teamed up with the BBC programme “Trust Me I’m a Doctor” to find out.

The Experiment:

  • They took a group of volunteers aged between 65 and 75, none of whom did regular exercise. Half of them were enrolled in a Zumba class for 12 weeks, while the other half did Tai Chi for 12 weeks.
  • At the beginning, middle and end of the 12 weeks, Jet, Sarah and Nor recorded the volunteers’ blood pressure and measured the flexibility of their blood vessels using ultrasound. The more flexible your blood vessels, the healthier they are.
  • They also measured the levels of antioxidants and other chemical markers of stress and inflammation in the volunteers’ blood. Although stress and inflammation may sound bad, they’re actually a healthy response to exercise and lie behind many of its benefits.

The results:

  • As might be expected, the Zumba group were all fitter after 12 weeks. Their blood vessels were more elastic and their blood pressure had dropped. Their blood results improved in line with people undertaking an exercise regime.
  • More surprisingly however, the results from the Tai Chi group also showed similar benefits to the more rigorous Zumba group, with improvements in blood biomarkers, blood pressure and vessel flexibility.
  • The answer as to why Tai Chi might have similar benefits may rest in the fact that Tai Chi might not be as gentle as it seems. Previous studies undertaken by Sarah and Jet show that people who practise Tai Chi have a similar rise in heart rate to those doing moderate intensity exercise.
Studies have shown that Tai Chi can help older people to reduce stress, improve posture, balance and general mobility, and increase muscle strength in the legs. It's also good for people suffering with fibromyalgia and Parkinson's.

Thanks to the BBC programme “Trust Me I’m a Doctor”. You can find out more here.

The power of the mind – the placebo effect: can my brain cure my body?

This is such an interesting programme that I simply had to share!

100 people took part in a recent trial for the BBC2 Horizon programme: Can my brain cure my body? It was a back pain study but with a twist, the twist being that everyone, unknowingly, was getting placebo. The placebo effect is well studied but at the same time still something of a mystery. (Placebo = Latin “I shall please”). It is an important part of modern clinical trials, where patients are given either a placebo or an active drug (without knowing which is which) and researchers then look to see if the drug outperforms the placebo, or vice versa.

With the help of Dr Jeremy Howick, an expert on the placebo effect from the University of Oxford, the Horizon team, headed up by medical journalist Dr Michael Moseley, set out to see if they could cure real back pain with placebo pills. It would be the largest experiment of its kind ever carried out in the UK, with 100 people from Blackpool taking part.

See the amazing results of this experiment here >>

The University of Oxford's Professor Irene Tracey told the programme that just because a placebo contains no active chemicals, does not mean the effects of taking it are not real.

"The average person thinks that placebo is something that's a lie or some fakery, something where the person has been tricked and it isn't real. But science has told us, particularly over the last two decades, that it is something that is very real, it's something that we can see played out in our physiology and neurochemistry."

Among other things, research has shown that taking a placebo can trigger the release of endorphins - natural painkillers that are similar in structure to morphine.

See Dr Jeremy Howick’s journal publication: Are treatments more effective than placebos? here >>

Will going vegan make you healthier?

The popularity of veganism has really taken off. More than four times as many people are now opting to cut animal products out of their diet than they were four years ago. Across Britain, people are spending more money on vegan products, and plant-based diets are trending online. With major supermarkets catching on and stocking up on vegan-friendly food – and even restaurants starting to offer vegan dishes and menus for their customers, we were wondering how easy is it to go vegan and stay healthy?

A recent episode of the BBC TV programme “Trust Me I’m a Doctor” posed this very same question, and set Cambridge Neuroscience Research Associate Dr Giles Yeo the task of going vegan for one month.

Specific aspects of Giles’s health were assessed by Dr Mellor, a dietitian and senior lecturer in human nutrition at Coventry University before and after his month of being vegan. We measured his cholesterol, body fat, weight, and his levels of iron, folate, zinc and vitamins A, E, D and B12. Dr Mellor also gave Giles a list of foods to eat to stay healthy and avoid becoming deficient in key nutrients.

The results

After one month on a vegan diet, Dr Yeo lost 4 kg and his body fat dropped by 2%. His BMI improved by 6% and his cholesterol fell by 12%. Thanks to Dr Mellor’s food suggestions, he didn’t become deficient in any key nutrients. However it’s more difficult to be so nutritionally diligent in the longer term and vegans can become deficient in nutrients you’d normally get from animal-based foods, such as iron and vitamin B12.

Essential nutrients for vegans

There are certain essential nutrients that we normally get from animal-based foods that vegans need to replace with alternative foods or supplements.

  • Vitamin D – Vitamin D is important for our bone health. It is produced in our body when sunlight hits our skin and is also present in a few animal products. Vegans might want to consider taking a supplement, but beware that not all of them are vegan-friendly. Vitamin D2 is always suitable for vegans, whereas some sources of vitamin D3 derive from sheep’s wool.
  • Vitamin B12 – We need vitamin B12 to keep our blood healthy. It is not produced by plants, but there are plenty of vegan products on the market, such as milks, spreads and yeast products, which are fortified with it.
  • Omega 3 Fatty Acids – These are essential for brain function and are found in oily fish. Other good sources are flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts and soy beans.
  • Calcium – While calcium is synonymous with dairy, there are plenty of vegan sources too. Tofu commonly contains calcium and there are calcium-fortified alternatives to cow’s milk available. Other good sources include green vegetables such as kale, pak choi, okra and spring greens, as well as almonds, chia seeds and dried figs.
  • Iodine – Iodine deficiency is not uncommon in the UK, even in non-vegans, particularly amongst young women. In the UK, cow’s milk is our main source of iodine, and the non-dairy alternatives, like almond drinks, have much lower levels. You can get iodine from seaweed (though the amounts are unpredictable) but you may need to take a supplement.
  • Protein – Some vegans worry that they aren’t getting enough protein, a nutrient people tend to associate with meat. However, eating a balanced diet with plenty of plant-based protein sources should provide all that you need. Particular foods to try and include are tofu, soy, beans and pulses.
  • Iron – Cutting out meat can also affect your iron levels – red meat contains a form of iron that is easy for our body to absorb, whereas the iron that you get in fruit and veg is less readily available. One solution is to accompany iron-rich vegan foods with a rich source of vitamin C, like orange juice, which helps to make the iron more absorbable.

And what does my favourite chef say about veganism?

Many argue that we should all be making a conscious effort to reduce consumption of animals and animal products for the sake of our health and for the planet. Vegan or not, a diet high in fruit and veg and plant-based food is a good starting point for a healthy lifestyle.

You can find out more about this experiment on the Trust Me I’m a Doctor website here >>

Men should exercise BEFORE eating and women AFTER, to burn the most fat.

Could this really be true? Well a laboratory test carried out by Dr Adam Collins, Senior Tutor in Nutrition at the University of Surrey indicates that the amount of fat we burn changes based on whether we eat before or after exercise – and this appears to be different for men and women.

Our bodies use two main types of fuel: fat and carbohydrates – and early indications from Dr Collins’s study suggest that we could increase the amount of fat we burn just by timing when we eat with when we exercise. I was interested to discover more – like many others I had thought that exercising on an empty stomach was the way to go, but now that school of thought appears to be changing.

Michael Moseley’s team from the BBC programme “Trust Me I’m a Doctor” worked with Dr Collins on an experiment to see if it might be possible to change our eating habits around exercise to increase the amount of fat our bodies are burning throughout the day. Here are the results of that experiment:

Experiment 1: The laboratory test

Adam’s initial experiment had shown that for young men, eating carbohydrates (CHO) before exercise significantly decreased the amount of fat their bodies were burning for the 3 hours afterwards, whilst they were resting (n=10, p = 0.02, Wilcoxon matched pair tests, repeated measures 2-way ANOVA, multiple t-tests).

When he did a similar experiment with both men and women, he and his team found that whilst the men still burned less fat if they had eaten carbohydrates before exercising (n=7, p<0.05), the women burned MORE fat if they had eaten carbohydrates before exercising (n=8, p<0.05).

* Significantly different between genders: p≤0.05;
† Significantly different between treatments: p≤0.05
Total fat (g) oxidation between treatments, and genders (Exercise + Recovery).

This experiment was repeated on a single brother and sister pair, Jess and Josh, and got similar results.

Jess and Josh results:

Experiment 2: The long term effect

In order to see whether this effect measured in the laboratory could actually be significant in the real world, “Trust Me I’m a Doctor” teamed up with Adam and his research group to recruit 30 volunteers to take part in a longer term experiment.

Thirteen men and seventeen women who did not normally do a lot of exercise we chosen and for four weeks they all took part in three supervised classes a week: high intensity training, Zumba and Spin classes.

All participants had a drink both before and after each exercise class, but one of their drinks was a placebo (with no calories), whilst the other was a carefully calorie-controlled hit of carbohydrate. No one knew who was taking which drink or when.

  • Seven of the men were taking the carbohydrate drink before exercising, whilst six were taking it afterwards.
  • Seven of the women were taking the carbohydrate drink before exercising, whilst ten were taking it afterwards.

At the beginning and end of the experiment, they were tested on how much fat they were burning whilst at rest (as well as a range of other measures such as weight, waist circumference and blood sugar/fat levels).

The Results

Whilst all the women ended up burning slightly more fat at the end of the experiment, those who were taking carbohydrates before their exercise were burning more.

Difference between men and women:
Meanwhile, all the men were actually burning slightly less fat at the end of the experiment, but those who were taking carbohydrates after their exercise were better off. We saw no significant differences in their weights or waist circumference, but their blood sugar levels changed in the same way as their fat burning.
Difference between men and women:

How it works

Men and women burn fat and carbohydrate in different ways.

Men are very much ‘carbohydrate burners’ – if as a man you eat carbohydrate then your body is going to burn it rather than fat. Just giving the men carbohydrate at any time in our experiment made them burn a bit less fat! However, given that we all have to eat (and carbohydrate is an important part of our food), it is better for men to eat after exercising if they want to burn fat. This is because after exercise, men will use that carbohydrate to replace the carbohydrate in their muscles rather than burn it for fuel and will continue to burn fat instead.

For women, the results clearly show that eating before they exercise is better than eating after if they want to burn fat. Women’s bodies tend to burn fat more easily than men’s, and are not fuelled so much by carbohydrate. Moreover, women are much better at conserving carbohydrate during exercise. So when women eat carbohydrate soon after exercise, this is effectively overloading them with fuel, and interferes with the body’s ability to burn fat.

The amount of carbohydrate in our tests is probably the equivalent of a piece of toast, or a small bowl of cereal – and for men ‘not eating before exercise’ means about 90 minutes before exercise, and for women ‘not eating after exercise’ similarly means for about 90 minutes after.

Although our study was quite small, put together with the evidence from the laboratory experiments, it does seem worth us all making that simple adjustment to when we eat in order to maximise the amount of fat that our bodies burn throughout the day.

So what do you think? These studies are always interesting and I would like to see more work in this area as there does seem to be a lot of conflicting advice available on the internet today.

BBC – The Truth About Getting Fit

By the middle of January many people struggle to keep up their resolutions to be more active. The result is that the UK wastes nearly £600 million a year on unused gym memberships.

But new science has the answers.

Medical journalist Michael Mosley teams up with scientists whose latest research is turning common knowledge about fitness on its head.

They reveal why 10,000 steps is just a marketing ploy and that two minutes of exercise is all a person needs each week. They discover how to get people to stick to their fitness plans and what exercise can actually make everyone more intelligent. Whether it is for couch potatoes who hate the thought of exercise, someone too busy to consider the gym, or even for fitness fanatics who are desperate to do more – science can help everyone exercise better.

A great programme and some fascinating insights! Do watch it if you get the chance.