Tai chi, a mind-body program that combines ancient Chinese martial arts moves with meditation, is shaping up to be a modern-day prescription for better health. The gentle, graceful exercises increase balance, flexibility, range of motion, strength, and mobility, while reducing stress and improving mood.
Research shows tai chi can lead to improvements in the heart, bones, joints, nerves, muscles, immune system, and mind, says Harvard assistant professor Peter M. Wayne, PhD. Wayne is co-author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, along with Mark L. Fuerst. “It’s gaining traction with many people today because of its potential benefits to physical and mental health,” says Wayne. Tai chi has long been considered “meditation in motion,” and now some are calling it “medication in motion.”
Veteran exercisers have come to appreciate it. Jean Duffy, a CAPTRUST financial advisor in West Des Moines, Iowa, works out with gusto, whether it’s playing basketball, doing aerobics, or walking. A few years ago she and her husband, Brad Ulrichson, bought several tai chi DVDs and started doing the workouts in their finished basement.
“Normally, you think exercise has to be fast to get a workout, but tai chi has slow, methodical movements to enhance your muscle control and balance. I’d definitely say it helped with my balance, and I get a good workout,” she says.
Duffy found it was relaxing and stress relieving, so she thinks it would be a perfect activity for 10-minute breaks in the office: “It gets you moving and your muscles working without making you sweat.”
Learning the rhythmic moves can be a bit daunting. Beryl Ball, a CAPTRUST financial advisor in Richmond, Virginia, took tai chi with a good instructor at a local community center several years ago. “I enjoyed trying the movements,” she says, “but I don’t think they’re easy. Sometimes doing things that are slow is more demanding of your muscles than doing things that are fast.”
She found the classes a little too slow-moving, so she went back to faster-paced Zumba classes. Still, Ball may try it again. She thinks the tai chi movements and the breathing “are wonderful for you.”
Tai chi is a good addition to other exercise routines, says Richard Cotton, an exercise physiologist and national director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine. “You can always take an exercise walk and lift weights, but there is something gained with tai chi that is not available with other exercises,” he says.
It helps reduce stress and promote relaxation because, when you do it, you need to be present and not fretting about the troubles of the world, he says: “For people who are under a lot of stress, the movements can help them relax and focus. It’s a way to center themselves and get their life back.”
People can build aerobic capacity and strength with tai chi, so they have an easier time doing other physical activities, says Wayne, research director at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, jointly based at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “We call it a gateway exercise because after people start doing tai chi, they become more toned and confident and are more likely to do other exercise.”
The movements are low impact and low stress on the body, but high in benefits, adds Li Li, a research professor in the School of Health and Kinesiology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. “We don’t follow the philosophy of ‘no pain, no gain.’ Tai chi doesn’t cause any pain but provides lots of gain.”
Li does tai chi himself and studies its health benefits. His research publications show that the exercises can improve gait and balance in people who have peripheral neuropathy, a condition characterized by damage to sensory nerves in the feet and legs that often causes burning sensations, numbness, and pain.
The other potential health benefits are wide ranging. There are more than 1,200 peer-reviewed scientific studies of tai chi, Wayne says. He says research indicates that it:
- Improves balance and reduces falls in older healthy adults, as well as adults with chronic balance problems related to Parkinson’s disease or stroke.
- Reduces pain and increases mobility of people suffering from knee osteoarthritis and lower back pain.
- Can help manage blood pressure and cholesterol.
- Helps people with chronic heart failure have a better quality of life. In other words, they have an easier time performing activities of daily living.
- Makes it easier to exercise and breathe for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Offers symptom relief for people with fibromyalgia, a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory, and mood issues.
Tai chi may also improve cognitive function, since many studies suggest that learning new motor skills, especially ones requiring focused attention, leads to cognitive changes in adults, Wayne says.
Most people who practice tai chi do it in large part for a greater peace of mind, which comes from being mindful and focused during the exercise, says Wayne, who is also a tai chi instructor. He begins his classes by having people stand in a circle and inviting them to be aware of what’s going on in their bodies at that moment. He tells them to allow themselves to fully arrive in the present.
After a minute or two of standing, he has his class begin with the simplest movement, tai chi pouring, which is shifting the body from side to side with awareness. From there the routine may include movements with names such as “wave hands like clouds” and “grasp the sparrow’s tail.”
There are different tai chi styles, including the Chen, Yang, Wu, Hao, and Sun. Each style contains different choreographed routines with movements and postures, but all share common principles, Wayne says.
Some of the tai chi classes and videos offered today “are a type of fusion of classic tai chi and other exercise forms,” Cotton says. “You don’t need to subscribe to or learn much about tai chi’s roots in Chinese philosophy to enjoy its health benefits, but these concepts can help make sense of its approach.”
If you are thinking about trying it, Cotton suggests finding a good instructor who will teach you a beginning level of the traditional moves and forms. “There are different levels, but it doesn’t have to be impossibly complex. There are beginner levels.” Beginner videos may work too, but it’s always good to learn the proper form from an instructor and then have your movements checked, he says.
“It’s never too late to try tai chi,” says Wayne. His research studies often include people who are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Tai chi not only provides people with physical activity and peace of mind, but “it’s also a great way to meet and spend time with others committed to taking care of their own health.”
Tai Chi Terms Explained
Tai chi derives its name from the concept of yin and yang, also known as the tai chi symbol. Yin and yang is a central concept in traditional Chinese medicine, philosophy, and science, and it is one of the deepest pillars of Chinese culture. The yin-yang symbol illustrates two complementary polar opposites that create a dynamic, balanced, and interdependent whole.
Tai chi training embodies this yin-yang concept at many levels. At the most obvious physical level, tai chi is an exercise that aims to strengthen, stretch, balance, coordinate, and integrate the left and right halves of the body, the upper and lower halves of the body, and the extremities of the body with the inside or core.
At a more subtle level, tai chi integrates body and mind. Body movements are coordinated with rhythmic, conscious breathing and multiple cognitive and emotional components, including focused attention, heightened self-awareness, visualization, imagery, and intention.
Successful yin-yang integration in tai chi is reflected in the seamless connection of graceful movements, with one flowing into another, as well as a sense of focus, calmness, and peacefulness.
The character for Qi is different from the “chi” in tai chi. Qi refers to vital energy, information, breath, or spirit.
Qi is the first part of a diverse set of mind-body practices called qigong. Broadly speaking, qigong translates as the cultivation and mastery of qi. Some styles of qigong are oriented more toward health and spirituality, in which you sit and do breathing and meditative exercises. Other styles are more vigorous and are designed to enhance your martial art skills. Most people think of tai chi as a form of qigong because it cultivates, moves, and helps manage qi.