Kyla Cathey is a freelance writer, editor, and blogger based in California's Central Valley.
In March 2014, first lady Michelle Obama took a weeklong visit to China with her daughters and mother, hoping to promote educational exchanges between China and the U.S. On the trip, she spread a message of free expression, visited cultural sites like the terra-cotta warriors in the Forbidden City — and joined in with a group of students learning tai chi.
The first lady isn't the only celebrity to try tai chi. The slow-moving, graceful martial art has become more popular in recent years, and counts model Gisele Bundchen and singer-songwriter Iggy Pop among its fans.
However, tai chi has a long history. It grew out of practices at Taoist monasteries in China, and was influenced by Chinese Buddhism as well. The five popular styles practiced throughout the world today can be traced back to the Chen style, developed in the late 1500s and early 1600s, but the roots of the practice may go back as far as the 12th century.
Though it has ancient roots, tai chi offers several physical and mental benefits today.
Top 5 Health Benefits of Tai Chi
- Eases arthritis pain.
- Reduces stress and may ease depression.
- Improves balance.
- May boost strength and flexibility.
- Reduces blood pressure.
1. Tai Chi Eases Arthritis Pain.
A number of studies have found that tai chi can help relieve pain related to osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology, 18 women with knee osteoarthritis practiced tai chi two to four times per week for 24 weeks. They showed much more improvement in pain and range of motion than the control group of 17 women who practiced simple stretching. A 2010 study found patients with RA saw improvements in pain, balance and movement after a 12-week tai chi class. A 2016 study confirmed that tai chi is similar to standard physical therapy in improving osteoarthritis pain. And in October 2016, scientists published a study in The Journal of Pain showing that tai chi helps ease neck pain.
The Arthritis Foundation has launched its own Tai Chi Program. A study of that program, conducted by Dr. Leigh Callahan of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine in 2010, found that 354 participants from North Carolina and New Jersey saw improvements in pain, fatigue and stiffness after an eight-week, twice-weekly tai chi course.
“I can do things I didn’t think were possible before,” Betty Broderick, 67, told the Arthritis Foundation. “I can’t say enough about tai chi. It changed my life.”
2. Tai Chi Reduces Stress and May Ease Depression.
Even the famed Mayo Clinic recommends tai chi as a way to fight stress.
The research backs it up. Tai chi is on par with walking, meditation and reading as a method for reducing stress, and leads to physical changes that show stress relief. It can also help ease symptoms of depression, anxiety and anger.
Although most of the studies look at older adults, even children can feel the positive effects of tai chi. A middle school program found that students who practices tai chi and mindfulness slept better, had better emotional well-being, were more relaxed, and improved their self-care and self-awareness.
Scientists aren't sure why tai chi is so relaxing. It could be the combination of exercise and meditation that the art promotes, it could be because exercise generally helps to reduce stress, or it could simply be because people who practice tai chi regularly tend to enjoy it. But it seems to work for many people.
3. Tai Chi Improves Balance.
Bad balance? Tai chi can help. The gentle, slow movements and shifts in weight that are the backbone of the martial art help improve balance.
It works because it targets all muscle groups, from the core and flexors to back and arms, as the practitioner flows from one move to the next.
Studies have found that among elderly practitioners who are at risk of falling, tai chi reduces the risk of multiple falls by 45 percent, as well as improving practitioners' confidence when walking. That confidence may do more to prevent falls than the exercise itself.
“Anyone who’s had a fall or who has instability has what we call a ‘fear of falling,'” Dr. Peter Wayne, research director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told the Harvard Health Blog. “Ironically, a fear of falling is one of the biggest predictors of a fall.”
Tai chi can also improve balance in people with neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease.
4. Tai Chi May Boost Strength and Flexibility.
Even though the focus is on slow movements, tai chi is a form of exercise, and it brings benefits like most other forms of exercise. That includes improving the strength of practitioners. Studies often show huge improvements in flexibility, too.
However, more research is needed to see whether tai chi has any benefits beyond those of other forms of exercise. Some studies have shown only modest results similar to other forms of exercise. Studies of tai chi's effect on strength and flexibility may be skewed by group members' general health and level of activity before taking part in research.
Still, even if tai chi is no more helpful than any other sport, it is a low-impact, low-stress exercise nearly anyone can do. That makes it a good choice for maintaining strength and flexibility for those who cannot do more strenuous physical activities.
5. Tai Chi Reduces Blood Pressure.
Hypertension, also called high blood pressure, can be dangerous: When it's chronic, it's linked to a higher risk of heart attack or stroke.
While patients with high blood pressure should always discuss treatment options with their doctor, tai chi can be an excellent tool to add to medication or changes in diet. That's because tai chi has been shown to have a profound ability to lower high blood pressure.
In fact, a new review of 28 studies has determined that, when practiced for an hour at least three times a week, tai chi is comparable to aerobic exercise and medication in lowering blood pressure.
"Reductions are comparable to first-line antihypertensive medications," Dr. Linda Pescatello of the University of Connecticut, who coauthored the review, told Medscape. "They are consistent with what has typically been prescribed."
Tai chi doesn't have the same side effects medications do, and is more comfortable for people with medical conditions that make aerobic exercise difficult, according to the review.
Bonus: Another study found that tai chi not only lowers blood pressure, but can also lower cholesterol.
How To Get Started
The best way to learn tai chi is to take a class. Classes are often offered at community centers, yoga studios, martial arts studios or senior centers. Another method is to check for tai chi groups at local parks or other public locations through Meetup.com.
If a class isn't an option, try DVDs for beginners, such as Dr. Paul Lam's Tai Chi for Health series (which includes a modified form for those who must exercise seated), Chris Pei's Tai Chi for Beginners or Helen Liang's Simplified Tai Chi for Beginners. Previews and single lessons from tai chi instructors with video series are often available on YouTube, so try a few before choosing the best fit.
If going the video route, it's a good idea to sign up with a free forum such as the Tai Chi Team at Sparkpeople or Taijiquan (Tai Chi) and Qi at Martial Talk. That way, you can ask any questions that come up during practice.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.