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Tai chi’s health benefits for body and mind

05 January 2021

Why practising the gentle martial art tai chi could help improve your physical fitness as well as your mind.

Woman practising Tai Chi
Tai chi involves gentle movements that flow gracefully from one pose to another, encouraging you to breathe deeply, stretch and relax, while moving slowly but constantly.

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, and can easily be done in the comfort of your own home or garden.

What is tai chi?

Tai chi is a form of martial art from 13th Century China, but it’s a gentler more internal version, originally intended for defence and meditation – you won’t have to do any high fast kicks in tai chi.

Tai chi is now popular around the world as a mild form of exercise, focusing on gentle movements and deep breathing. These are aimed at boosting your balance, muscle power and posture. Relaxation and mindfulness are also part of this discipline.

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 first came to the UK in the 1960s when it was introduced by Norwegian practitioner Pytt Geddes, who had studied it when living in Shangai Hong Kong in the 1950s.

There are five major styles of tai chi:

  • Chen style
  • Yang style
  • Wu Hao style
  • Wu style
  • Sun style

Yang style, named after influential martial arts teacher Yang Luchan (1799-1872), is the most popular around the world.

What can you expect in a tai chi class?

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, photos or video to follow, you can exactly observe how each move is done and copy it to your best ability.  

What do you wear for tai chi?

Tai chi doesn't have a standardised uniform, and schools rarely have a belt ranking system. The main thing is to wear clothes which are loose and comfortable. Modern practitioners tend to wear breathable t-shirts and trousers, although the archetypal outfit is a 'kung fu' uniform of traditional Chinese trousers and top with Chinese frog fasteners up the front can be worn by masters during demonstrations and tournaments.

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.

Tai chi is believed to bring other health benefits, including:

And there is research that suggests that tai chi can help with rheumatoid arthritis, and may help improve balance, and increase the strength of your leg muscles, but more work needs to be carried out before these benefits can be confirmed. 

Tai chi’s physical health benefits

A study from the University of British Columbia, Canada, looking at the benefits of practising tai chi found that it can help older adults with a number of conditions improve their physical abilities.

The aim of this study was to find out how beneficial tai chi is for common long-term conditions in older people with:

Specifically, those behind the study wanted to find out whether doing tai chi helped to relieve symptoms and improve physical capacity and quality of life in all of these long-term conditions.

The researchers carried out their work using information from existing studies published up to 2014.

They looked at the results of studies on the use of tai chi by people in their mid-50s to their early 70s, who were affected by one or more of the four conditions. Tai chi training in these studies generally lasted for an average of one hour per session, with sessions usually two to three times a week. Training was, on average, over a period of 12 weeks.

The results showed that doing tai chi was associated with or linked to improvement in physical capacity and muscle strength in most or all of the conditions.

It was also linked to improvement in pain and stiffness symptoms in people with osteoarthritis, and improvements in breathlessness in those people with COPD.

This provides more backing for the findings of earlier research in this area. It’s also a reminder of the possible benefits of tai chi for those of us who have a number of long-term conditions.

This study is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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How tai chi exercises mind as well as body

Regular exercise improves brain function in the over-50s, regardless of whether someone is already showing signs of cognitive decline – and no matter how much or little they've exercised in the past. That's according to Australian research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Researchers at the University of Canberra analysed the results of 39 earlier studies that looked at the effects of at least four weeks of supervised exercise regimes on memory and thinking skills in older people. Their findings? Fitness programmes of at least moderate intensity that lasted between 45 minutes and an hour per session showed a significant link to improved cognitive performance.

These effects can still be seen in people who only exercise once a week. But, say the researchers, the more you exercise, the greater the brain-boosting benefits will be.

How exactly does exercise improve brain power? An increased heart rate sees more oxygen pumped to the brain, along with a cocktail of vital brain-boosting nutrients and a growth hormone that encourages the formation of new neurons and connections.

The Australian researchers reserved a special mention for tai chi – the ancient Chinese exercise based on slow, flowing movements and balance – citing it as a potentially more suitable choice for people who can't take part in physically demanding regimes.

'Positive benefits to cognition occurred with an exercise intervention that included tai chi, or resistance and aerobic training, prescribed either in isolation or combined,' they write.

Previous studies have suggested tai chi may be a particularly effective form of exercise for people with arthritis. Researchers at Tufts University in the US found that patients with knee arthritis saw their pain levels more than halved, as well as improved mood, after a 12-week tai chi programme.

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.

You can even do tai chi while seated, if it is not possible for you to stand for long periods.

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. There are also plenty of YouTube tai chi videos for you to follow at home, including plenty aimed at beginners, such as the channel of experienced tai chi trainer Dr Paul Lam.

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The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.