Tai chi has been around for over 700 years and is an ancient Chinese exercise that was originally developed as a form of self-defense or martial arts. Today, tai chi is most commonly used as an exercise that involves the connection of mind, body, and spirit. Breathing, visualization, and movement are used conjunctively to work the entire body at once. It is slow-motion, low-impact, and easy to learn, it can also be easily adapted to fit the needs of everyone from all fitness levels.
The philosophy behind tai chi can be compared to yin and yang – the belief that two opposing forces work in harmony within everything that exists. While research around the benefits of tai chi is ongoing, there have been many studies that support the benefits that it can have when practiced consistently.
What is tai chi and who can do it?
Tai chi is a very gentle form of exercise. As mentioned previously; it’s low-impact, slow-motion, and easy on the muscles and joints. Because of this, it’s excellent for everyone from young children to the elderly. Movements are typically performed in a circular motion, muscles are relaxed, and joints are not bent or extended uncomfortably.
Tai chi is an adaptable form of exercise so those who are confined to a wheelchair, or have other mobility issues are able to participate as well. The risk of falls for older adults is always a major concern, a study conducted in 2016 from the International Journal of Gerontology found that tai chi has a significant effect on reducing the risk of falls.
The integration of muscular, skeletal, and neural functions is what is believed to play a major role. Children who participate will experience the same benefits as adults, but it may also be exceptionally beneficial for children with sensory processing difficulties, motor planning deficits, and ADHD.
Tai Chi and Stress Relief
It is well known that exercise releases endorphins and is great for stress-relief, this is no different with tai chi. Supporters advocate that it promotes inner peace and tranquility and that it helps calm you both physically and mentally. The mental concentration and mind-body connection combined with breathing create a perfect state of relaxation and calmness. The inclusion of meditation gives researchers a reason to believe that tai chi may be superior to some other forms of exercise in terms of stress-relief. A randomized controlled trial from 2017 concluded that tai chi is a safe, and cost-effective alternative to exercise that reduces stress levels in healthy but stressed individuals. Additionally, a clinical review found that research results about tai chi and reduced severity of depression were consistently positive.
Tai Chi Promotes Weight Loss
The regular practice of tai chi has been found to result in weight loss. As many of us know, in order to lose fat you must burn a required amount of calories to keep yourself within a caloric deficit. Performing tai chi for only 15 minutes can burn approximately 70 calories, while this may not seem substantial, a little can go a long way and it’s a great way to add variety to your workout regime.
While it is not an effective form of exercise for accelerated fat loss, one study found that tai chi moderately reduced body weight and fat mass and improved waist circumference in participants. They tracked a group of adults who participated in tai chi for 45 minutes, five times a week for a total duration of 12 weeks. Participants made no additional lifestyle changes and lost a little over one pound by the end of the study. Alike to any other form of exercise and weight loss program, ensuring that you are maintaining a healthy diet will deliver the best results.
Tai Chi Improves Balance
Tai chi involves targeting leg strength, reflexes, and all other physical components required to stand upright and as a result of this, it improves balance. Everyone’s balance functions begin to deteriorate as they age, and some just naturally have poor balance regardless of age. Movements used in tai chi promote postural stability, range of motion and enhance spatial awareness. Acquiring the assistance of an instructor is highly recommended in order to ensure the proper execution of movements to see improvements in balance.
The University of Texas published a study in 2015 stating that tai chi can also help to improve sensation in the ankles and feet of older adults with diabetes. A report by The New England Journal of Medicine found that tai chi helps to improve balance and motor control in people with mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s Disease.
Better Quality of Sleep
For those who struggle to get a restful sleep, tai chi may be a good solution. Research has found that when prescribed two tai chi classes a week for 10 weeks, young adults experienced significant improvements in their quality of sleep. “Tai chi targets stress, which we know can contribute to sleep problems,” says Dr. Michael Irwin from the David Geffen School of Medicine, “And it has no significant side effects, unlike some sleep medications.”
Tai Chi Helps Improve Cognitive Function
While research surrounding tai chi’s effect on mental health is minimal, research into tai chi and improvements in cognitive function has produced better results. A clinical review found excellent evidence from five systematic reviews stating that it improved cognitive performance, improved attention, and processing speed. The same review also found good evidence for the treatment of cognitive impairment and dementia. Additionally, it has been found that tai chi was better than physical activity for improving cognitive capacity in older adults. Improvements to cognitive function as a result of tai chi may take much longer and may not be as immediate as some other benefits of the practice.
Tai Chi Reduces Chronic Pain
There have been some small studies that suggest the possibility of chronic pain relief from conditions such as arthritis, and fibromyalgia as a result of tai chi. The Department of Clinical Medical Technology, Affiliated Hospital of Binzhou Medical College, Binzhou, PR China performed a meta-analysis in order to assess the possible effectiveness of tai chi exercise for “pain, stiffness, and physical function in patients with osteoarthritis”. They found that it is beneficial for improving arthritic symptoms, and recommended that it should be included in rehabilitation programs.
Many other small-scale studies share the same outcome, with the large majority of results being positive and participants noticing an improvement in mobility and overall quality of life.
Improvements in cardiovascular health
The most common form of exercise that most people opt for to boost their cardiovascular health is high-intensity exercises like running, swimming, and CrossFit. Maintenance of good cardiovascular health is crucial, but for those who aren’t physically capable of doing such exercises or just don’t enjoy it, tai chi is a great low-intensity alternative. It has shown to reduce blood pressure and resting heart rate as well as a significant improvement in respiratory function. Another meta-analytic study found that adults with an average age of 55 years had higher aerobic capacity after doing tai chi regularly for a year than their sedentary counterparts of the same age group. Recent trials have also found an increase in functional capacity after a heart attack as a result of tai chi and that it can also be used as an effective alternative for those who are unable to attend formal rehabilitation.
Research surrounding the health benefits of tai chi is still ongoing and active. There are more than 500 studies and 120 systematic reviews to assess the benefits of tai chi for dozens of different conditions, general health, and fitness.
Research aside, however, it has been shown that tai chi is an exercise for all ages and fitness levels. It is found to be exceptionally beneficial for older adults who may have difficulty exercising, with the strongest evidence of benefit being the prevention of falls in older adults.
Many people who practice tai chi have described additional benefits that have not yet been studied, but in almost all cases, benefits can be seen after only a few weeks. It is recommended that pregnant women or those with health or joint problems consult a physician before attempting.