Metarobics and the Future of Tai Chi for Health

Written by Dr. Pete Gryffin

I met Dr. Pete Gryffin at the 17th World Congress on Qigong, Tai Chi, and Traditional Chinese Medicine in early September. His breaking-through discovery of Metarobics is extremely important. At my request, he is sharing it here with you.

Tai Chi Chuan translates as the “Grand Ultimate Fist.” And indeed it is – no other martial art offers so many benefits for health and martial skill. In my own journey I have travelled the spectrum from a focus on developing martial skill, to experiencing and researching its many benefits for health. Initially I believed Tai Chi needed to be preserved unchanged, as a traditional art. But I have come to realize that modification, while keeping the heart of Tai Chi, can benefit even more people. Tai Chi is much like the tip of a truly great iceberg. In no other form of Kung Fu have I seen the level of sophistication of strikes, breaks, and throws which are contained within Tai Chi. Truly the “Grand Ultimate Fist.” So it should come as no surprise that Tai Chi is also the grand ultimate in health.

My greatest epiphany regarding Tai Chi for health came as a result of three of my students who had cancer. Two had cancer that was not responding to treatment – until they started Tai Chi. The third wanted to try Tai Chi before she underwent conventional treatment. All three experienced a dramatic turnaround in their condition. So much so that I began to wonder why and how. Traditionalists would say it is the power of Qi, and there is certainly truth to this, at many levels. But as a research scientist, I knew that something biological and measureable had to be going on as well. I began researching cancer, and found that the traditional and the scientific were both right – one of major complications in cancer treatment is hypoxia (oxygen deficiency in the tissues). And the basic translation of Qi in most Chinese-English dictionaries is “Air,” or oxygen. Traditional martial art practitioners like to look beyond the basic translation of Qi, into the concept of energy fields and the metaphysical. And my own experiences support that this can be an important consideration.

Book Cover of Tai Chi Therapy

Book Cover of Tai Chi Therapy

But I also realized that having a measurable and physiological understanding of the benefits of Tai Chi for health was critical, for generating acceptance and practice of these arts in the medical community, as well as in the general public. Further research showed that hypoxia underlies or complicates pretty much every chronic condition, including heart, lung and kidney disease, diabetes, immunity, arthritis, and asthma. Since one of the primary goals of Tai Chi is to enhance Qi, or oxygen in the body, it seemed important to investigate potential mechanisms of action related to enhanced oxygen use and delivery. Based on my research, a primary mechanism of action (not necessarily the only one, but a good place to start) was effects on blood oxygen saturation, diffusion, and oxygen based metabolism. From a theoretical perspective, it was possible that the focus on relaxation and the breath resulted in enhanced intake and use of oxygen in the body.

To determine effects on blood oxygen saturation, which might differ from aerobic forms of exercise, I conducted a series of experiments comparing blood oxygen saturation during aerobic exercise and sections of the Tai Chi form. I also took measurements during the Qigong exercise Ba Duan Jin, the “Eight Pieces of Silk Brocade.” The results were statistically consistent and significant – aerobic forms of exercise resulted in either no change in blood oxygen saturation, or a drop, depending on the intensity of the exercise. The Tai Chi and Qigong exercises however, consistently raised oxygen saturation (with the exception of the more strenuous movements, such as “snake creeps down,” when performed sinking completely to the ground). Some movements resulted in a greater increase than others, depending on the intensity of the movement. In the Tai Chi movements, the “Grasp the Bird’s Tail” section resulted in the highest increase in blood oxygen saturation. Sometimes the difference was not more than a point or two, but considering that the normal range for blood oxygen saturation varies by four to five percentage points, this is a 20% to 50% increase. Levels below 94% are considered a concern by hospital nurses, and levels chronically below 92% can lead to death. I also measured effects during regular walking, and walking with a focus on relaxation and the breath, since in some respects, walking may be closer to a form of Qigong than it is to aerobic exercise.

Blood Oxygen Saturation

Blood Oxygen Saturation

I also realized that aside from being able to measure differences in blood oxygen saturation with an oximeter, that it was also possible to indirectly measure oxygen diffusion in the body, through the tingling feeling people experience in the hands and arms during Tai Chi. The feeling is akin to the painful feeling when blood circulation returns to an arm or leg which has fallen asleep, except the feeling is pleasant rather than painful. The tingling occurs as a result of the increase in blood oxygen saturation and diffusion. The greater your state of relaxation and the coordination of the breath, the greater the sensation of tingling, or “Qi,” in the hands and arms (also sometimes felt in other body parts).

With the unique effects on enhanced blood oxygen saturation, diffusion, and oxygen based metabolism, it seemed important to have a term which differentiated these exercises from faster paced aerobic exercises, which focused on developing cardiovascular health. Tai Chi/Qigong and related exercises do not fit within aerobic and anaerobic (strength based) categories of exercise, and Qi does not make sense to the medical community and general public. Based on effects on oxygen based metabolism, I coined the word “Metarobics” (or Metaerobics), to describe what will become a new field of exercise, from the public perspective. Before Ken Cooper came up with the term Aerobics, few people ran for health. But once the public understood how and why these exercises benefited cardiovascular health, and had a term for these exercises, the growth of aerobic exercise boomed, with a corresponding decline in deaths from cardiovascular disease (see the below chart). A Metarobic approach to Tai Chi/Qigong and related practices could do the same thing for these exercises, and a wide range of chronic conditions.

Blood Oxygen Saturation

Blood Oxygen Saturation

During my doctoral work at the University of Florida, I conducted focus group sessions and a survey of national programs, to identify barriers to the adoption of Tai Chi by the general public. The primary barrier, aside from the long learning curve, was confusion as to how and why exercises such as Tai Chi provides benefits. As stated by one respondent: “It looks like we are waiving our hands around for no reason.” Metarobic theory provides a measureable, explainable, and physiological explanation of benefits, one which ties into a large body of research on chronic conditions and hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency. It also explains why Tai Chi benefits such a wide range of conditions. Applying Metarobic theory to Tai Chi movements can also help to develop user friendly forms and movements, which can allow immediate practice of Tai Chi. This is an important consideration in using Tai Chi for health and chronic conditions. Aside from researching and developing Metarobic theory, I have also been collecting case stories documenting a personal view of how Tai Chi has benefited various conditions. Over 50 of these case stories are described more fully in “Tai Chi Therapy: The Science of Metarobics,” with shorter excerpts posted on the Metarobics Facebook page. Over 30 of the Facebook posts are from people who feel that Tai Chi made a major difference in their cancer treatment. Metarobic theory provides a key element in understanding how and why people experienced these benefits, and points to important areas of research in order to maximize benefits for even more people.

For traditionalists, Metarobics does not undermine nor replace Traditional Chinese Medicine, nor traditional formats of learning and teaching. Metarobics does provide an important and necessary physiological understanding of benefits, which is critical for acceptance and adoption of these exercises by a skeptical public, and for the research and creation of user friendly formats for health. Greater appreciation for all of the myriad facets of Tai Chi will come in time. For a more detailed overview of Metarobic theory, research, and case stories related to a variety of chronic conditions, see “Tai Chi Therapy: The Science of Metarobics,” available on Amazon.com. For more info, visit the Metarobic Institute.

The citation of the research as the following:

Gryffin PA, Chen WC, Erenguc N. Survey of tai chi programs in the United States: Barriers and opportunities for older adults. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. Accepted February 4th, 2016.

Gryffin PA, Chen WW, Chaney BH, et al. Facilitators and barriers to tai chi in the older adult population: A focus group study. American Journal of Health Education, 2015; 46(2): 109-118.

Gryffin PA. Qi: Implications for a new paradigm of exercise. Integrative Medicine, 2013; 12(1): 36-40.

About the Author: Dr. Pete Gryffin has over 30 years of experience with Tai Chi and Kung Fu. His research includes the development of Metarobic theory, as well as mindfulness based practices for health of mind and body. He has been a Tai Chi instructor for the Shands Arts in Medicine program, various retreats, and for Fullerton College, where he developed the curriculum for eight new courses oriented around mind/body health and fitness (using traditional martial training and wilderness experiences). Pete was an Alumni Fellow at the University of Florida, where he received his PhD in Health and Human Performance. Contact Dr. Gryffin at drgryffin@metarobics.org.

Dr. Gryffin demonstrates Grasp the Bird’s Tail in the below video:

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