Tai Chi combines exercise and meditation

The goal of any fitness activity is to improve human performance. Many choose competitive sports while others prefer pursuing this goal individually. Any effort to improve the human body’s ability to compete must include a program of diet, exercise and stress reduction.

Tai chi is among the few activities that combines aerobic exercise, resistance training and meditation. Originally from China, it was developed as a form of self-defense 2,000 years ago and described as “meditation in motion.”

The basis for tai chi is 13 movements that flow without interruption. All activity involves a breathing component. An effective workout can be designed in segments performed throughout the day totaling as little as 20 minutes.

David Chandler is a tai chi master from Quaker Hill, who has practiced for 35 years. His week is filled teaching classes around the state including at Backus Center for Healthcare Integration (CHI) class each Tuesday at the Backus Hospital Outpatient Care Center from 6:30 - 8 pm.

“If you think you don’t have time in your life to do tai chi, then you don’t have time not to do it,” Chandler said.

His belief is based on the countless reports of students from factory workers to artists who report dramatically increased productivity since practicing tai chi.

The medical benefits of tai chi include treating many musculoskeletal conditions, among them arthritis and back pain. The movements are low-impact and weight-bearing so that both stamina and flexibility are improved.

Unintentional falls account for more than 16,000 deaths in the United States each year. Many physicians recommend tai chi for elderly patients as a mechanism to improve balance and avoid a catastrophe.

Accomplished athletes effectively implement a tai chi component to their workout as a way of stretching and refining skillful movements.

Tai chi is an activity with broad appeal for people of all ages and abilities. It also serves as a means of overall self-improvement that can benefit anyone.

Anthony G. Alessi, MD, is Chief of Neurology at The William W. Backus Hospital and in private practice at NeuroDiagnostics, LLC, in Norwich. E-mail him at aalessi@wwbh.org, or listen to his podcasts, comment on his blog or buy his book at backushospital.org.

Extreme sports bring out the best in athletes

Extreme sports capture the imagination of all spectators. They have also become the hallmark of a new generation of athletes.

Recently the Mountain Dew Winter Tour competed at Mount Snow, Vermont. Olympic veterans and teenage newcomers hit the slopes for four days of exciting freestyle skiing and snowboarding.

The athletes are as interesting as their sport. Those from winter climates have been on the mountain since they began to walk. They are unconventional in appearance, motivation and approach to sports.

“These competitors are divided equally between gender and range in age from 15 to 35 years old. All are in excellent physical condition. They have no off-season because it’s always snowing somewhere,” said B. J. Caretta, the Mountain Dew Tour director.

Financial reward is not a motivating factor since prize money and sponsorship support is miniscule when compared to the big three of baseball, basketball and football.

As in all extreme sports, these activities are physically demanding. Airborne maneuvers like the “Ollie,” “Backside Rodeo” and “Half Cab” require tremendous core body strength and coordination. Often competitions are held at high altitudes where oxygenation demands are greater.

Despite the competitive nature of sports, these individuals are very supportive of each other and are challenged more by pushing the limits of their abilities than by scoring points.

Extreme winter athletes are passionate about their sport and respectful of all those involved, including support staff and fans. They mingle with the crowds in between events, hold free clinics for children and contribute to local charities as part of their tour.

Psychologically, athletes who combine passion and a sense of giving back to their sport have the most satisfying and successful careers. Retired professional athletes rarely consider money as a yardstick for success.

Sports today have developed into a way of earning a living. In some sports, it is more about a lifestyle that all athletes can learn from.

Volleyball is a way to remain active and socialize year round

After beginning a fitness and weight loss program, involvement in a team sport can provide added incentive as well as a social dimension. One obstacle is that few team sports can be played year-round.

Volleyball is not only a year-round sport, but it can be played in a variety of different venues including indoors, outdoors and on a sunny beach. Ski resorts will often sponsor snow volleyball tournaments. This week, competitive volleyball will come to the Mohegan Sun Arena in the form of indoor beach volleyball.

Volleyball is a highly competitive sport at the high school, college and Olympic levels. Although few competitors move on to a professional volleyball tour, most participants are recreational athletes who enjoy competition, camaraderie and staying fit.

Deb Bagni has been playing recreational volleyball for 22 years. She currently plays in a highly competitive women’s league in West Haven, Conn.

“The level of recreational player varies between those who are former collegiate volleyball players, as in this group, to those who may just join a league for a night out with friends,” Bagni said.

Many travel to different towns each week and play in multiple programs.

Most municipal recreation departments sponsor leagues. The Connecticut Sports Center in Woodbridge hosts many indoor leagues for all levels of ability.

Volleyball requires both upper and lower extremity strength and flexibility. There are a wide variety of injuries associated with volleyball, especially those involving the shoulder, knee and ankle joints. These injuries range from acute tears and dislocations to chronic tendonitis and arthritis.

An active stretching program should be followed before competing and between matches. Jumping jacks are a good way to warm up right before going on the court.

A weekly volleyball game alone is not sufficient to attain cardiovascular fitness. Volleyball should serve as a sport that complements a regular daily fitness program that includes both aerobic and resistive components, along with a healthy diet.

Anthony G. Alessi, MD, is Chief of Neurology at The William W. Backus Hospital and in private practice at NeuroDiagnostics, LLC, in Norwich. E-mail him at aalessi@wwbh.org, or listen to his podcasts, comment on his blog or buy his book at backushospital.org.

Tips to stick to your exercise regimen in 2009

A new year is officially under way and so are many exercise programs. Whether early morning visits to the gym or a frigid evening jog, statistics show that these programs will only last an average of six weeks.

This trend is somewhat disheartening, although there are key strategies to sustain an exercise regimen before bathing suit season arrives:

Buddy system. Successful efforts in physical training are always helped by having a partner. It may be a spouse, sibling or friend. A personal trainer can be a great partner to help overcome some of the intimidation of going to a gym. A training partner adds accountability to a program as well as a social dimension.

Equipment. Any investment in fitness equipment is a good investment if the equipment is used. Sturdy machines that can be used with minimal difficulty are advised. While these are typically more expensive, refurbished equipment is often a good bargain.

Entertainment. Watching television, reading or listening to music can help pass the time and make exercise more productive. Portable music players are used by many athletes who listen to music as well as podcasts and audio books.

Time. Many exercise failures are due to an inability to find the necessary time. Consider exercise an appointment that must be kept for at least 30 minutes, three times per week.

Variety. Interval training combines multiple activities for short intervals in one workout session. This is a very efficient and stimulating way to become fit. The key factor here is that each segment must be done at full effort.

At some time, most of us will falter in our fitness efforts. Keep in mind that a new year begins every minute of every day. Simply begin again.

If readers have tips to help others continue their workouts, please share them here.