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Texans Find Qigong as a Response to the Obesity Epidemic

Aug 17, 2007
It wasn't long ago that workout programs were limited to variations on the basics: jogging, hiking, team sports, like basketball or soccer, and, if one was lucky enough to have a home or fitness club swimming pool, a few good laps. Even exercise machines tended to only simulate the same activities. Treadmills, stair climbers, stationary bikes, and elliptical trainers were a bit like the hamster-wheel version of trying to enjoy the great outdoors, indoors.

The emphasis was on discipline, and going as long and as hard as a thumping heart would allow. Pushing to utter exhaustion and stumbling out with sweat-soaked clothes were good signs. But times, they are a'changin', and, with a ballooning obesity epidemic on the nation's hands, contributing, in part, to a growing health insurance crisis, this can only mean good things to come. Texas' obesity rate alone is 27%, 3 percentage points higher than the national average.

This is not to say that a hard, sweaty workout doesn't have its place. Particularly for the young and joint-healthy, strenuous exercise sessions can show incredible benefits. But, in the past fifteen years, new methods of research have demonstrated that increased endurance and decreased risk of certain diseases such as atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and diabetes and improved muscle strength, loss of fat content, lower stress levels, and better overall health can be achieved through practices like qigong, interval training, yoga, and physically-based, interactive video games, such as Dance Dance Revolution.

Texas, too, is realizing this need for varied exercise options, and cities like Dallas and Austin nourish thriving yoga studios, pilates classes, and martial arts academies.

These may all seem like familiar options to the young-adult Texas crowd, but, a little more than a decade ago, qigong master Chunyi Lin couldn't attract a half dozen students. Now, he runs his own center in Minnesota, travels across the country conducting workshops, and teaches packed classes of sixty or more at a time. Qigong [has been] growing like crazy in the United States in the past few years. People want to be more proactive with their health care.

Americans are turning less and less to their individual health insurance companies to hand them laboratory prescriptions, and more and more to taking control of their own health through preventative care, including stress-reduction techniques.

In addition to cardiovascular fitness, the ever-increasing health-conscious population is seeking longevity, reduced stress, and overall mental and physical improvements. Let's face it: Americans are stressed out. Folks in Texas, and the rest of the nation's populace, are starting to realize that stress alone is causing a good portion of one's mental and physical issues.

Qigong, a broad term for several types of energy-based practices, is growing as at least a partial solution to this problem. Through the use of slow, measured movements and deep breathing, this ancient Chinese physical art has shown evidence of reducing pain and inflammation, increasing focus and concentration, improving immunity, lowering stress levels, and providing for better overall well-being. Yoga, an even more popular practice, offers a range of workouts from sweat-inducing, muscle-cramping regimens, to measured, deep-breathing sessions suitable for all ages.

Interval training is also hitting the market again. After a brief stint of popularity in the 90's, the exercise program seemed to fade, kept alive by cloistered professional athletes and specialized fitness chains, like Curves. Interval training alternates between short bursts of high-intensity activity, and slower, lower-energy stints. After short sessions of interval bike training spread over two weeks, a 2005 double-blind study found that 75% of its subjects increased their endurance by 100%.

Another study this year found that, after two weeks of similar training (which entailed seven interval workouts), the practice improved the cardio function of its participants by 13% and their ability to burn fat by 36%. The results were similar for all fitness levels - from the borderline sedentary to the dedicated athletes - according to Talanian, lead author of the study and exercise scientist at Ontario's University of Guelph. That means almost anyone can do it and should expect to experience tangible results within weeks.

Interval training seems to work so well, in part, because high-intensity bursts recruit new muscle fibers, while low-intensity periods allow those muscles to rid themselves of waste products created during the workout. Contrary to popular beliefs as of a decade ago, this method actually increases endurance by a greater percentage than steady-paced, high-intensity exercise sessions. Such relatively quick, tangible results, for most exercisers, keeps them working out.

Consistent workouts not only mean feeling and looking better, but also increased immune function, which, in the long run, translates to fewer incidences of disease. Exercisers aren't the only ones who love it; health insurance companies do, too.

"Any form of exercise that recruits new muscle fibers is going to enhance the body's ability to metabolize carbohydrates and fat," said Ed Coyle, director of the human performance laboratory at the University of Texas, Austin.

The only real guidelines? Higher-energy bursts should elevate heart rate to 80 to 85% of optimal performance, and the lower-energy periods should never last long enough to decrease heart rate to resting levels. Interval trainers should always warm up first, take 24- hours between sessions to give the body time to recover, and never attempt the program if over the age of 60, or at risk for heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular ailments without the consent of a qualified physician.

Technological trends cannot be ignored, either. As usual, children are leading the way. Dance Dance Revolution, an interactive Japanese video game that hit the Asian market about ten years ago, is now recognized as such a popular, effective, and entertaining workout, that more than 1,500 American schools are expected to integrate it into their curriculum by 2010, in the face of a growing obesity epidemic.

Recent studies in Houston and Dallas revealed alarming obesity trends in children under 18, and Texas schools are now considering revamping their physical education programs in response. Dance Dance Revolution may be an intelligent option: utilizing a foot touch pad and on-screen cues, participants learn increasingly complicated, progressively fast-paced dance moves. The game can be played individually, or in competition, which appeals to a broader audience. One need not be particularly athletic, nor competitive, to participate; the only requirement being the willingness and ability to move on cue.

"I'll tell you one thing: they don't run in here like that for basketball," said Bill Hines, a physical education teacher in Morgantown, West Virginia, where the game was integrated.

So maybe workouts don't have to be so much work. Through variety and open-mindedness, anything that gets a body moving, a heart rate up, or stress levels down, is worth a shot. And, it can even be a rewarding cultural experience. Qigong, martial arts like aikido and jujitsu, and ashtanga yoga classes can elevate more than just fitness awareness levels. Who knows, you may even get a discount on that health insurance premium over time. And don't worry, pronunciation guides usually come with the class.

How you treat your body when you're young will certainly affect your health as you age, and eventually your wallet.
About the Author
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com
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