10 Health Benefits of Tai Chi
A workout, minus the strain
Tai chi is a mind-body practice that combines elements of a workout, meditation, and dance, and consists of slow, balanced, low-impact movements performed in sequences known as sets or forms. Its gentle, fluid movements make it ideal for people who want the benefits of exercise without the strain on joints or the jarring impacts. Tai chi’s convenience is appealing, too: You can practice it nearly anywhere—either alone or in a group—and no equipment is needed. Here are 10 benefits of this practice.
1. May help physical and mental health
Studies of tai chi are often small, have design limitations, and vary widely in frequency and duration, which makes it difficult for researchers to draw conclusions. However, growing scientific evidence suggests that tai chi may help improve some aspects of both physical and mental health, though it shouldn’t be used to replace conventional care.
2. Better balance, fewer falls
The Vestibular Disorders Association notes that tai chi can improve balance by strengthening and stabilizing the ankles; encouraging equally distributed movement between the ankle, knee, and hip joints; and promoting a greater awareness of the body and movement. Research has found that tai chi may reduce the number of falls compared with conventional balance training and exercises to increase strength and flexibility.
3. Knee arthritis relief
A 2014 review appearing in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found “some strong evidence” suggesting that tai chi could help control pain and improve physical function in people (average age, 60) with knee osteoarthritis. It also found evidence that the practice could improve balance and strength.
4. A boost in brain power
A 2012 study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s disease, which included 120 healthy older people in China, found that those who regularly practiced tai chi showed an increases in brain volume and improvements on several tests of memory and learning, compared with those not practicing tai chi. Separate research suggested that tai chi could enhance the ability to reason, plan, remember, and solve problems.
5. Less depression and anxiety
Tai chi shows positive effects on various measures of psychological well-being, including reduced depression and anxiety and better stress management, according to a 2014 study..
6. Better heart health
A review published in 2016 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found multiple studies showing that tai chi (and the related traditional Chinese practices of qigong and baduanjin) could decrease blood pressure. The traditional Chinese practices also increased the distance people could walk and were associated with a small drop in low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (the “bad” kind) and triglycerides (fat in the blood that increases heart disease and stroke risk), and improved quality of life and mood.
7. Chronic pain relief
Tai chi can ease chronic pain, according to researchers publishing in the Journal of Pain. After 12 weeks, study participants in both tai chi and neck exercise groups reported less pain and better quality of life than the people who had been put on a waiting list.
8. Improvements in fibromyalgia
A few studies have suggested that tai chi can help with the symptoms of fibromyalgia. In one study, participants with an average age of 50 who took tai chi had a greater reduction in pain and more improvement in mood, quality of life, and ability to exercise than another group who took classes in managing fibromyalgia and did stretching exercises.
9. Benefits for chronic conditions
A group of Canadian researchers found that tai chi was associated with improvements in muscle strength and physical capacity in those with chronic conditions such as breast cancer, osteoarthritis, heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Tai chi was also associated with reduced stiffness and pain in people with osteoarthritis and slight breathing improvements in people with COPD.
10. Better bone health, sleep quality, and more
Clinical trials have suggested a favorable effect on bone density and health. Other studies have associated tai chi with better sleep quality, a stronger immune system, improved blood glucose levels, back pain relief, and an improved quality of life in people with heart failure, cancer, COPD, and other chronic, debilitating medical conditions. Tai chi classes can also be a relaxing means of socializing.
Getting started: Take a class
It’s best to learn tai chi by taking classes instead of watching videos. Personal attention from the instructor will help ensure you perform the moves correctly. The Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA or the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association can help you find instructors and classes in your area. If you can't make it to class, the Arthritis Foundation also offers a set of Tai Chi for Arthritis videos online.
A word on safety
Tai chi is generally safe for people of all ages and unlikely to result in serious injury, though beginners may report minor aches and pains. Avoid practicing tai chi on a full stomach or when you’re tired. If you have joint problems, back pain, a hernia, or osteoporosis, consult your doctor before taking up the practice. He or she may recommend modifying or avoiding some postures.
Reviewed by Carolyn M. Matthews, M.D., director of integrative and functional medicine at Baylor University Medical Center, Dallas, and Youcef Sennour, M.D., geriatrics and internal medicine specialist at Baylor Senior Health Center, Dallas.