A group of people practicing tai chi in a park can be a beautiful thing. In general, they’re focused and relaxed, and their movements appear synced and slow. But don’t let the ease of its pace fool you — tai chi is bona fide exercise, and it can improve your coordination, balance, mobility, and strength, as well as your mind’s ability to remain present, among other wellness perks.
“Tai chi is a moving mind-body exercise that has origins in Asian martial arts and traditional Chinese medicine,” explains Peter Wayne, PhD, an associate professor of medicine and the director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Tai chi introduces slow, gentle, repetitive movements, with breathing integrated with body awareness, mental focus, imagery, and visualization,” he says.
There’s a physical and mental element to tai chi, and more scientific research is emerging on how impactful it may be to foster overall health. While it’s best known for its stress-buffering benefits, there are other potential perks, too, like helping soothe pain conditions and cancer-related symptoms, and lowering blood sugar, similar to other forms of exercise, notes the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
Read on to discover how tai chi may support wellness in a variety of groups, across various health conditions and physical abilities.
1. May Help Reduce Fall Risk
One quarter of American adults over age 65 will suffer a fall each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Falls send three million older adults to the emergency room every year, and they can lead to hospitalization, broken bones, and traumatic brain injuries, the CDC notes.
“Tai chi is one of the most effective tools available for improving balance and reducing falls,” Dr. Wayne says. In a systematic review and meta-analysis published in BMJ Open in February 2017 on nearly 4,000 people, those who practiced tai chi were 20 percent less likely to fall than a control group that didn’t practice tai chi. And the more consistently a person practices tai chi, the greater the protection against falls, the authors suggest.
Not only does the practice improve balance, but it also betters proprioception (your sense of body position in space), muscle strength, and endurance, according to the researchers.
2. May Improve Heart Health
Exercise, in general, is good for your heart — and tai chi is included in that. In one small randomized trial, published in May 2021 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, middle-aged and older adults who practiced Wu-style tai chi (a specific type of tai chi) for six weeks, in addition to their conventional medicine plan, saw a greater improvement in their LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels and systolic blood pressure than a group who practiced a simplified style of tai chi in addition to their conventional medication. (Wu-style tai chi features movements that are “softer and [more] continuous” than simplified tai chi, which was developed in the 1950s to popularize the practice.) Slow abdominal breathing, which is incorporated into tai chi, may also help support circulation and reduce the risk of heart disease.
A systematic meta-analysis published in November 2022 in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice looked at seven randomized controlled trials of 503 hypertensive participants and showed that participants who did tai chi five times per week for 60 minutes per session lowered both systolic and diastolic blood pressure numbers. The authors noted that more research is needed to fully understand how exactly a consistent tai chi practice may affect blood pressure.
Among people who have heart disease, those who regularly practice tai chi reported less stress, anxiety, and depression and better quality of life compared with control groups, according to a systematic review and meta-analysis of 15 studies published in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing in October 2020. That’s important because 20 percent of heart disease patients have symptoms of depression. “As people move in tai chi, they are asked to relax, breathe naturally, and focus their attention. This is similar to some types of meditation,” says the study author Ruth Taylor-Piliae, PhD, RN, a professor in the behavioral health sciences division at the University of Arizona College of Nursing in Tucson. It may be the meditative aspect of tai chi that helps improve mood in this group, though more research is needed.
3. May Help You Age Well
Tai chi may improve aging adults’ confidence in their body’s abilities. Indeed, for older adults, a recent large-scale systematic review published in the November–December 2022 Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics examined 89 studies and concluded that tai chi improved mobility, pain, physical function, psychological health, cognitive function and overall quality of life in most older adults.
A systematic review and meta-analysis in the December 2022 Ageing Research Reviews indicates that tai chi may improve physical functioning in elderly individuals who have sarcopenia (a loss of muscle and strength with aging), or who are frail. “When you’re afraid to move, you stop doing the things you love, such as socializing and traveling,” explains Wayne. Over time, this can promote isolation and loneliness, which may culminate into other physical and mental concerns. “Movement, I believe, is one of the key factors that keep people healthy. A good form of movement, such as tai chi, enhances your ability to walk and do every activity you want to do,” he says.
4. May Boost Cognitive Function and Mood
“Tai chi’s benefits for psychological well-being are valuable,” says Wayne. “We know the practice has the potential to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety, improve overall mood, and maintain healthy cognition with aging,” he adds.
A past meta-analysis affirms its potentially mood-boosting benefits in both the short- and long-term, meaning tai chi may be valuable for your sense of mental well-being after one class, and builds from there the more you practice. For most studies, people did tai chi two to three times per week for 40 to 60 minutes per session, and psychological perks existed for both healthy individuals and those who had existing health problems.
In summary, the research suggests tai chi practice may be more widely used to support psychological health.
5. May Improve Bone Health in Postmenopausal Women
Menopause leads to bone loss, and one-half of post-menopausal women will develop osteoporosis (a disease characterized by weakened bones), according to the Endocrine Society and the NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center.
But certain lifestyle changes may help preserve bone, such as avoiding smoking, limiting alcohol, eating a balanced diet, and prioritizing exercise. Gentle movement practices, like tai chi, may be worth discussing with your doctor and adding to your wellness routine.
A review published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience in September 2022 concluded that practicing tai chi for at least six months may help minimize bone loss, though more research is needed. Tai chi movements center on the practitioner’s ability to hold a half-squat posture and shift weight back and forth between legs while rotating and twisting the torso. This makes tai chi a weight-bearing exercise that may help strengthen bones, the researchers point out. What’s more, tai chi may be a safe form of exercise to strengthen your bones and reduce the risk of falls if you have osteoporosis, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
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