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Immortal Musings

Exercise Your Diabetes Away

by Ralph Kenney

May 15, 2015

This week, as I tried to decide how to wrap up my current series of blog post on diabetes and blood sugar, I ran onto a new research paper in the International Journal of Endocrinology on the benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine for Diabetes and in it they summarized recent research specifically about tai chi and diabetes.

I couldn’t miss this opportunity to talk about one of my favorite topics.

My first job after my academic studies was with AT&T Bell Laboratories. At the time it was one of the top places in the world for scientific research and leading edge engineering. As you might imagine the place was filled with an eclectic collection of personalities, nationalities and interests.

One evening after work I wandered into a class on Chinese Martial Arts in an empty conference room and began a more than 30-year love affair with Chinese Martial Arts. This led me to study Traditional Chinese Medicine, Acupuncture, Reiki, Tai Chi and Chi Kung. Ultimately, that chance encounter brought me to what I do today, selling and educating people about herbs and teas from traditional healing modalities.

Until I relocated a couple of years ago I had the pleasure of teaching a tai chi class for seniors. So, I’ve seen first hand the benefits of tai chi for longevity, mobility and health. I also follow with interest the scientific research on its benefits and I’ve been delighted to see tai chi incorporated into wellness programs around the country.

Many of you may already be familiar with tai chi. Tai chi originated as a Chinese martial art but is also widely practiced solely for it’s health benefits. Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches that energy flows through our bodies in energy channels. Tai chi is practiced with slow flowing movements that activate and circulate that energy. A well-designed tai chi routine will stimulate circulation of this energy throughout the body and in time will eliminate energy blockages.

TCM practitioners believe that almost all human ailments can be linked to a problem with energy flow and so regular practice of tai chi is believed beneficial for all illnesses and for longevity in general.

The research paper just released reviewed five clinical studies on the specific subject of using tai chi to help treat diabetes and the side effects of the disease.

The length of the studies varied from 12 weeks up to 6 months and the studies originated in Korea, China and Australia. The research resulted in an impressive list of benefits of tai-chi for diabetics.

All five studies measured improvements in blood glucose levels for diabetics who practiced tai chi.

Additionally the different studies found improvements in;

  •  Neuropathy
  • Balance
  • Triglycerides
  • Immune system health
  • Glucose control
  • Bodily pain
  • Vitality
  • Diabetic self-care
  • Social function
  • Mental acuity
  • Memory
  • Blood pressure and
  • Quality of Life scores.

Taken together there is a compelling case for absolutely everyone, not just diabetics, to add tai chi to their health regimens. If you are thinking about it here are a few pointers.

  • You’ll need to allocate at least 2 hours per week for instruction and as much time as possible for practice on your own. Unlike many health routines, tai chi is not a case of just following the instructor. You have to practice on your own to begin feeling how the movements should be performed, more importantly feeling the energy movement.
  • Find a well-qualified instructor. I once ran into a fellow instructor at a community center where I was teaching. I stuck around to watch her class. It was, to say the least, interesting. Her students were enthusiastic. The teacher was very authoritative. And… it definitely positively was NOT tai chi. After the class I asked the instructor where she had learned. After some hemming and hawing, she explained that her training was in yoga but that after having seen tai chi she “immediately understood it, because of her experience in yoga” so she bought some tai chi videos and incorporated tai chi into her class schedule.

    Unfortunately this is all too common. Tai chi looks deceptively simple. But it is an art. You will get health benefits immediately but mastery takes a lifetime of study. I have been studying for more than 30 years now and I am still humbled every time I have a chance to meet with my master.

  • You don’t have to “get in shape” to practice tai chi.
    Tai chi is comprised of slow flowing movements and can be adapted to even the most extreme physical challenges. I’ve personally taught tai chi to and seen improvements in people with Parkinson’s, severe arthritis, recent hip surgeries and Alzheimer. My oldest student so far was 102 years old.

  • Expect tai chi to be mentally challenging. Tai chi consists of a long series of movements which must be memorized in great detail. Different teachers use different routines but the shortest “real” tai chi form I know is 24 movements and the longest routine I know is 365 movements. Memorization of the basic routine is just the beginning. Once you know the routine you will spend months and years refining each individual movement. Tai chi is moving meditation and requires the same effortless concentration as meditation.
  • Don’t give up too soon. My greatest frustration teaching tai chi was the fall out rate. It wasn’t just me. Every tai chi teacher I know has the same frustration. People drop out for a host of reasons. The most common is someone, usually reasonably physically fit, who tries it once or twice and declares it to be boring. Yes, tai chi is slow but it is anything but passive. It just takes time to understand and appreciate what is going on.

    More frustrating for me, because I am more invested in their success, are the people who learn the basic routine and declare themselves “done.” You are never done with studying tai chi. It will unfold for you new layers your entire life. My teacher is around 80 years old and he’s been studying since he was 4. I still have him grab me excited when I arrive at his house and say, “Let me show you what I just discovered!”

I hope I haven’t discouraged you from trying tai chi. I love it. It is a practice unlike any other. The health benefits are proven and substantial. It is a health practice that you can take up at any age and continue practicing no matter what else happens in your life. Yes, it is challenging at first. But the benefits are enormous and the joy you will feel if you give it time makes all the hours of practice seem trivial.


  1. S. W. Seto, G. Y. Yang, H. Kiat,A. Bensoussan,Y. W. Kwan, and D. Chang, “Diabetes Mellitus, Cognitive Impairment, and Traditional Chinese Medicine,” International Journal of Endocrinology, vol. 2015, Article ID 810439, pp. 1-14, 2015.
  2. S. Ahn and R. Song, “Effects of tai chi exercise on glucose con- trol, neuropathy scores, balance, and quality of life in patients with type 2 diabetes and neuropathy,” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, vol. 18, no. 12, pp. 1172–1178, 2012.
  3. X. Liu, Y. D. Miller, N. W. Burton, J.-H. Chang, and W. J. Brown, “The effect of Tai Chi on health-related quality of life in people with elevated blood glucose or diabetes: a randomized controlled trial,” Quality of Life Research, vol. 22, no. 7, pp. 1783– 1786, 2013.
  4. R. Song, S. Ahn, B. L. Roberts, E. O. Lee, and Y. H. Ahn, “Adhering to a t’ai chi program to improve glucose control and quality of life for individuals with type 2 diabetes,” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, vol. 15, no. 6, pp. 627– 632, 2009.
  5. Y. Zhang and F. H. Fu, “Effects of 14-week Tai Ji quan exercise on metabolic control in women with type 2 diabetes,” The American Journal of Chinese Medicine, vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 647–654, 2008.
  6. [S.-H. Yeh, H. Chuang, L.-W. Lin et al., “Regular Tai Chi Chuan exercise improves T cell helper function of patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus with an increase in T-bet transcription factor and IL-12 production,” British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 43, no. 11, pp. 845–850, 2009.


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