By Bob Condor

Chinese healers have long believed in the power of the body’s energy or chi (pronounced “chee”). You likely know that it is the object of acupuncture needles, to realign the chi. It’s not all together different than seeing the chiropractor for getting an adjustment for a sore neck or painful back.

Those acupuncture needles, while not anywhere near as unpleasant as you might think—if you have tried it, you know what I mean, patients often doze during acupuncture treatments—are not for everyone. And the treatments can add up on the cost side if your health insurance plan doesn’t cover the therapy.

All of those reasons are part of what the Chinese culture has long practiced the martial art of tai chi, to fortify the chi, feel more vibrant and whole, be stronger and achieve clarity of body, mind and spirit.

Here in the U.S., the most popular form of the ancient Chinese martial art is called tai chi chih. It is practice of slow, gentle movements that has gained a steady following, if not matching the monster numbers of yoga in this country. Researchers have noticed too. Northwestern University’s Timothy Hain, an associate professor of neurology, has conducted a number of studies showing that tai chi chih can improve balance in elderly volunteers, including those with limited mobility. Hain has turned his work with tai chi chih toward individuals with ringing in the ears and other hearing disorders.

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Just this week, UCLA researchers made another strong case for taking up tai chi chih as a gentle yet effective addition to our exercise programs. That goes double if you are growing a bit older. The UCLA scientists, publishing their study in the July issue of the journal Sleep, showed that a regular practice of tai chi chih helped older volunteers to rest easier at night.

This is particularly attractive because it is documented that it becomes harder to get a good’s night sleep as we age. Research shows about half of all older adults struggle falling asleep or getting back to sleep a few times per week.

Two-thirds of the tai chi chih volunteers enjoyed improved sleep, while only one-third of a control participating in health education sessions rested better than before the study. Lead researcher Michael R. Irwin compared the effect of a tai chi chih practice to sedative drugs or cognitive behavioral therapy. Joining a tai chi chih class is considerably less expensive than cognitive therapy, while there are no side effects from medications. Many health clubs and community recreation programs are offering tai chi chih to get you started or you can browse the DVD offerings. In any case, you can learn to do it at home without many obstacles. Then it becomes about as inexpensive as it can get.

The level of tai chi chih participation in the study was three 45-minute classes per week. Irwin and his colleagues noted that people moved from “poor” sleepers to “good” sleepers during the 16 weeks of the study, a significant jump both statistically and in quality of life. Just ask anyone who struggles as a poor sleeper.

“Bob Condor is the Daily Health Blogger for Barton Publishing . He is also the Living Well columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer . He covers natural health and quality of life issues and writes regularly for national magazines, including Life, Esquire, Parade, Self, and Outside. He is a former syndicated health columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of six books, including “The Good Mood Diet” and “Your Prostate Cancer Survivors' Guide.” He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and two 11-year-old kids.