A little tai chi each day keeps the aches caused by a desk job away

Tai chi can help mitigate musculoskeletal disorders caused by extended computer use and provide a lift in mood, says a study led by York University researchers.

The study looked at female computer users at the University, measuring levels of physical fitness and psychological well-being in more than 50 staff members who participated in a twice-weekly lunch-hour tai chi program.

Above: Tai chi is a popular martial art that originated in China. A York University study has found that regular participation in tai chi classes offers great physical and psychological benefits for workers in desk jobs. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

Researchers found that participants improved their musculoskeletal and back fitness, achieved lower resting heart rates and a smaller waist circumference, and experienced an emotional boost.

"Overall, the program was effective in improving both musculoskeletal fitness and psychological well-being," says study lead author Hala Tamim, professor in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science, Faculty of Health. "We’re excited about these results, especially given the difficulty in treating musculoskeletal disorders using traditional methods," she says.

Left: Hala Tamim

Musculoskeletal disorders, such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, are painful disorders of muscles, nerves and tendons, often caused by work activities that are repetitive or involve awkward postures. Women suffer from these complications at a higher rate than men, which makes early intervention for women particularly important, according to Tamim.

The exercise program consisted of two 50-minute classes per week for 12 consecutive weeks from May to August 2007. Classes were conducted by a professional tai chi practitioner, using fitness facilities at the University.

Study participants averaged 5.8 hours a day on computers at work. The majority (79 per cent) perceived their physical fitness as average or above, yet 34.6 per cent reported that they rarely or never engaged in weekly physical activity. Of the 52 participants, 42 had never formally practised tai chi prior to the study.

Pre- and post-program assessments included resting heart rate, resting blood pressure, anthropometric measures (height, weight, waist circumference) and musculoskeletal and back fitness (including grip strength, sit and reach, and vertical jump tests), employing the Canadian Physical Activity, Fitness & Lifestyle Approach.

Psychological well-being of study participants was also assessed pre- and post-program, using the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). They reported feeling less stress and more control over their lives and personal problems.

Tamim says the simplicity of tai chi makes it especially beneficial for office workers. "It’s something that can easily fit into a working day. You don’t need any specialized equipment, and you’re not perspiring heavily, so there’s no need to shower before going back to work," she says.

The study, "Tai chi workplace program for improving musculoskeletal fitness among female computer users", is published in the Dec. 23 issue WORK: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment & Rehabilitation.

It is co-authored by kinesiology & health science graduate student Evan Castel, York Professors Veronica Jamnik, Sherry Grace, Norman Gledhill and Alison Macpherson, and McMaster University Professor Peter Keir.