Tai Chi: boost health without breaking a sweat

Siski Green / 06 October 2014

If pounding the pavement or spinning the wheels of a stationary bicycle aren’t the kinds of exercise that appeal to you, Tai Chi may offer you a less frenetic alternative. But although Tai Chi may look as though its less effective as an exercise – people rarely break into a sweat or grunt with effort – it has many health benefits.

What is Tai Chi?

Tai Chi is a form of martial art but a gentler more internal version – you won’t have to do any high fast kicks in Tai Chi.

Like yoga, Tai Chi focuses on mind and body, and consists of very slow movements that are graceful, continuous and flowing. Despite the slow pace, the movements involved which have names such as ‘swallow skimming a pond’ or ‘three claps of thunder,‘ require a level of flexibility, strength and balance – abilities that will improve as you continue practising.

Tai Chi classes usually start with a warm up and then you perform specific movements, which might entail things such as standing with your feet hip-width apart, hands on the front of your thighs. Then slowly and surely raising your arms to one side, at head level, then back down again, and to the other side. This is called ‘Wild goose looks for food.’ With an instructor or photos to follow, you can exactly observe how each move is done and copy it to your best ability.  

What are the benefits of Tai Chi?

Aside from the fact that Tai Chi can be done anywhere, at home, in a park or in a space at the gym, it offers numerous boosts to health too.

Reduced risk of dementia: A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that doing Tai Chi regularly over a 40-week period caused an increase in brain volume. Shrinking brain volume is associated with ageing and especially with dementia.

A brain boost: Because of the nature of the movements – each movement is carefully described – you’re not just exercising your body, you’re also exercising your mind. Focusing on doing a movement carefully and remembering the elements of a complex motor sequence is associated with beneficial changes in the brain.

Fewer falls and better balance: One study from the Oregon Research Institute, USA, showed that Parkinson’s patients who did Tai Chi regularly saw 40% reduction in the number of falls they had in comparison to a group who did not do Tai Chi.

More flexible joints: A study from Tufts Medical Centre, USA, found that patients with knee osteoarthritis experienced three times better joint function, as well as reduction in pain by doing Tai Chi twice a week.

Boost immunity: Doing regularly Tai Chi sessions might also help prevent a cold because according to research from UCLA, patients who were given a vaccine and who did regular Tai Chi over a 25-week period had an immune response that was nearly twice as good as those who had the vaccine but did not do Tai Chi.

A calmer you: Because the focus of your attention is on the moves you’re performing, worries and concerns about day-to-day life tend to fade into the background, making this similar to meditation.

Who is Tai Chi for?

Because of its slow and progressive nature, anyone can do Tai Chi. The beauty of this particular type of exercise, too, is that elderly or frail individuals can also try it. Similarly those with arthritis, stiffness in the joints or people who cannot attempt high-intensity aerobic exercise, can also do Tai Chi.

Can I start Tai Chi today?

Yes! If you can’t find a class near you (check Finding an Instructor at www.taichiunion.com), order a DVD or even download an app. The best Tai Chi apps, according to app review site appcrawlr.com, are Tai Chi Step by Step (£4.99) Tai Chi Fundamentals (free).

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