Wheelchair T'ai Chi

By Melaina Juntti

Regular physical exercise is crucial for healthy bodies, minds, and spirits—so what are people in wheelchairs to do? Besides their physical limitations, some wheelchair users lack the self-confidence to start exercise programs, transportation to workout facilities can be difficult, and fitness programs are often spendy. The result? Many remain inactive, often triggering secondary health issues like obesity and depression. But a medical anthropologist from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga may have sparked a revolution: wheelchair t’ai chi. After conducting a wheelchair t’ai chi demonstration for the International Paralympics Committee in Beijing last year, Zibin Guo, PhD, ran a small study on six women and four men who couldn’t walk 50 feet independently in under one minute. The group met for 45-minute t’ai chi sessions twice a week for two months. The participants saw improvement in flexibility, strength, and mood—and one even regained the ability to walk, climb stairs, and use her left arm. “Since the movements in wheelchair t’ai chi are slow, circular, and require the use of the lower back,” Guo explains, “they can provide important health benefits to people with otherwise sedentary lifestyles.” Guo now conducts training workshops for health providers in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, senior centers, and hospitals.