Research keeps accumulating about the health benefits of tai chi, which is high on our list of recommended exercises.
Practiced around the world and very popular in the U.S. and Canada, tai chi consists of slow, balanced, low-impact movements. You may have seen groups practicing it outdoors under the guidance of a teacher.
Tai chi chuan (its full name) originated in China centuries ago as one of the martial arts; it was an outgrowth of the ancient Taoist philosophy, which values tranquility and reflection. The martial side is no longer central to most practitioners. Instead, tai chi combines elements of a workout, meditation and dance.
It involves dozens of postures and gestures, performed in sequences known as “sets” or “forms,” derived from animal movements. It’s a bit like slow-motion karate or swimming in air. To do the sets correctly, you must learn controlled breathing, concentration, how to shift your body weight and how to relax your muscles.
Great claims are made for the benefits of tai chi—that it provides an “inner massage for your organs,” for instance, and that it benefits your heart as much as aerobic exercise. This is not totally farfetched. Studies have long shown that tai chi offers physical and mental benefits for young and old, healthy and less so. It is especially beneficial and safe for older people, even the very old. It’s a good complement to aerobic exercise and weight training.
Here are some of the benefits:
Balance, coordination and reduction in falls: New 2011 guidelines about fall prevention in older people from the American Geriatrics Society and its British counterpart recommended tai chi because it targets strength, gait and balance. Much research has shown that tai chi can improve balance and coordination, as well as reduce the risk of falls.
Arthritis relief: In a 2009 study from Tufts University, people over 65 with knee osteoarthritis who took tai chi classes twice weekly for 12 weeks experienced less pain and had improved physical function, compared to a group that did stretching and received counseling.
Physical therapy and rehabilitation: As a highly adaptable adjunct to other kinds of physical therapy, tai chi can aid in recovery from injuries and after a heart attack or surgery. The exercises take your joints through their full range of motion, and can thus restore lost flexibility. Physical therapists can individualize tai chi programs for various problems.
Relaxation and sleep: Tai chi promotes relaxation and can relieve tension and anxiety. In a 2008 UCLA study, older people with moderate sleep complaints who took up tai chi (20 simple movements) reported better sleep and daytime functioning (less drowsiness, for example) after 25 weeks.
Diabetes control: A 2009 study from the University of Florida School of Nursing focused on people with type 2 diabetes who took tai chi classes twice a week, with three days of home practice a week for six months. Those who adhered to the program significantly lowered their blood sugar and also managed the disease better than those who did not stick with it. Tai chi’s effect on diabetes control is similar to that of aerobic exercise, the researchers concluded
Overall fitness: Studies have shown that older people who start doing tai chi can improve their ability to walk, lift weights, run and do daily activities.
Tai chi: getting started
Until you are adept at tai chi, you’ll need an instructor. It’s satisfying, as well as practical, to join a group. Classes are often available at health clubs, colleges and adult education centers. Make sure the class you sign up for is for health and relaxation, rather than combat. The International Taoist Tai Chi Society lists instructors and classes in many countries and localities. There are also programs on DVD.