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The Benefits of Tai Chi for Better Overall Health

The Mental and Physical Health Benefits of Tai Chi

The Benefits of Tai Chi for Better Overall Health

You’ve probably seen groups of people practicing tai chi in a park, so you have some idea what it’s all about. Slow, mindful movements. No weights. Low intensity. The practice combines aspects of ancient Chinese medicine, philosophy and martial arts, and it’s the antithesis of most modern exercise programs that emphasize fast, vigorous activity.

Tai chi is a form of exercise that began as a Chinese tradition. It’s based in martial arts, and involves slow movements and deep breaths. Tai chi has many physical and emotional benefits. Some of the benefits of tai chi include decreased anxiety and depression and improvements in cognition. It may also help you manage symptoms of some chronic diseases, such as fibromyalgia or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Tai chi is often described as “meditation in motion,” but it might well be called “medication in motion.” There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice, which originated in China as a martial art, has value in treating or preventing many health problems. And you can get started even if you aren’t in top shape or the best of health.

It has been practised for years in China – often by big groups in parks. Tai chi or “taiji” is a form of qi gong, an umbrella term for ancient Chinese traditional practices of self-cultivation and energy preservation. And it is different to the martial art form known as “Tai Chi Chuan” or “Taijiquan”. Tai chi is a “mind-body exercise”. You do slow, gentle, and fluid movements with your body. While doing this you focus on the movements and your breathing and forget about the stresses of life.

If you’re looking for a way to reduce stress, consider tai chi (TIE-CHEE). Originally developed for self-defense, tai chi has evolved into a graceful form of exercise that’s now used for stress reduction and a variety of other health conditions. Often described as meditation in motion, tai chi promotes serenity through gentle, flowing movements.

Indeed, certain parts of tai chi are thousands of years old. But while tai chi may look mundane—even boring to some—experts who’ve studied it say its benefits are vast and hard to oversell.

Tai chi is a richly researched exercise, with health improvements ranging from better blood pressure scores to a sharper mind. “We’ve seen improved immunity to viruses and improved vaccine response among people who practiced tai chi,” says Dr. Michael Irwin, a professor of behavioral sciences and director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. During the past 15 years, Irwin has published more than a dozen studies linking tai chi to lower rates of insomnia, depression, illness and inflammation.This gentle form of exercise can help maintain strength, flexibility, and balance, and could be the perfect activity for the rest of your life.

In this low-impact, slow-motion exercise, you go without pausing through a series of motions named for animal actions — for example, “white crane spreads its wings” — or martial arts moves, such as “box both ears.” As you move, you breathe deeply and naturally, focusing your attention — as in some kinds of meditation — on your bodily sensations. Tai chi differs from other types of exercise in several respects. The movements are usually circular and never forced, the muscles are relaxed rather than tensed, the joints are not fully extended or bent, and connective tissues are not stretched. Tai chi can be easily adapted for anyone, from the most fit to people confined to wheelchairs or recovering from surgery.

Tai chi is a mind-body practice that involves a series of slow, flowing exercises that combine movement, meditation, and rhythmic breathing. Although it was initially developed as a martial art, it’s commonly practiced as a form of “moving meditation.” According to the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, tai chi’s movements can help stimulate the flow of vital energy (also known as “chi”) and, in turn, promote healing from a variety of health conditions.

Anyone can do tai chi. It is suitable and safe for people of all ages and abilities – though may need to be adapted for certain people or if you have a medical condition.

This article explores the documented evidence for the benefits of tai chi.

What Are the Health Benefits of Tai Chi?

What Are the Health Benefits of Tai Chi?

Fall reduction

Tai chi showed some potential benefits for tai chi helping prevent trips and falls in older adults across a range of studies.

A 2012 review looked at 159 randomized controlled trials of various types of practices to prevent falls in older adults.

The studies involved more than 79,193 people, with the authors concluding that tai chi could reduce the risk of falling.

A 2015 systematic reviewTrusted Source of seven trials involving 544 tai chi chuan practitioners concluded it helped improve balance control and flexibility.

Meanwhile, a 2014 reviewTrusted Source found that exercises, including tai chi, might have reduced the fear of falling among older adults in a retirement community immediately after a workout. However, the review did not reach any conclusions about tai chi reducing the frequency of falls.

One 2012 trialTrusted Source of 195 older adults with Parkinson’s disease showed that tai chi helped treat balance issues with more success than resistance training or regular stretching.

Another article notes that the activity is a successful exercise interventionTrusted Source for factors related to falls in older people.

The evidence from these studies suggests that tai chi might help support many aspects of balance and posture.

Chronic pain

Several small studies suggest that tai chi can significantly impact the chronic pain that people experience with specific conditions, such as osteoarthritis of the knee and fibromyalgia.

A 2013 meta-analysis of seven different trials seemed to demonstrate that a 12-week course of tai chi could improve the stiffness and pain symptoms of knee osteoarthritis and improve physical function.

However, the review authors recommended further, larger-scale trials to support their conclusions, as the studies they examined had flaws and potential biases.

A 2015 review of 54 studies involving 3,913 participants provided moderate-quality evidence that tai chi could help improve physical function in those with knee osteoarthritis. While tai chi only formed the basis of five of the studies, the evidence that exercise helped provide short-term relief for knee osteoarthritis was strong.

Tai chi also seems to have some evidence supporting its use to help manage fibromyalgia.

A 2010 trialTrusted Source showed tai chi to be better than wellness education and stretching for regularizing sleep patterns and treating symptoms of pain and fatigue in people with fibromyalgia.

A 2012 studyTrusted Source of 101 people suggested that combining tai chi with mindfulness training could improve fibromyalgia symptoms and functional difficulties.

Reduces Stress

One of the main benefits of tai chi is its ability to reduce stress and anxiety, though most evidence is anecdotal.

In 2018, one study compared the effects of tai chi on stress-related anxiety to traditional exercise. The study included 50 participants. The researchers found that tai chi provided the same benefits for managing stress-related anxiety as exercise. Because tai chi also includes meditation and focused breathing, the researchers noted that tai chi may be superior to other forms of exercise for reducing stress and anxiety. However, a larger-scale study is needed.

Tai chi is very accessible and lower impact than many other forms of exercise. The researchers found it to be safe and inexpensive, so it may be a good option if you are otherwise healthy and experiencing stress-related anxiety.

Cognitive Functioning

For a research review published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2014, investigators sized up 20 previously published studies testing the effects of tai chi on cognitive function in older adults. The reviewed studies demonstrated that benefits of tai chi may have beneficial effects on cognitive function, particularly in older adults without existing cognitive impairment. The effect size in adults without cognitive impairment was large compared to no intervention and moderate when compared to exercise.

Live Longer

Tai Chi is a mind-body practice that originated in China and remains today the most common form of exercise for adults in that country. In addition to the much-researched benefits for reduced mortality from moderate-intensity exercise, such as you get from regular walking and jogging, researchers found the first evidence that tai chi also promotes longevity. The greatest benefit from tai chi was obtained from those who self-reported engaging in the practice 5-6 hours per week.

Strength and Endurance

Benefits of Tai Chi has proven to be an exercise with significant benefits in the areas of balance, upper- and lower-body muscular strength and endurance, and upper- and lower-body flexibility, particularly in older adults. In one such study, people in their 60s and 70s practiced Tai Chi three times a week for 12 weeks. They also undertook a myriad of physical fitness tests to measure balance, muscular strength, endurance, and flexibility before and after the 12 weeks. After just six weeks, statistically significant improvements were observed in balance, muscular strength, endurance, and flexibility measures. Improvements in each of these areas increased further after 12 weeks.

Chronic Heart Failure

Some practitioners of tai chi praise it as an effective management tool for people with chronic heart failure. However, current evidence does not support this conclusion. Any studies showing an improvement indicate that the findings were insignificant.

A 2015 systematic review of 20 studies showed tai chi as beneficial for multiple areas of cardiovascular health, such as blood pressure and heart rate. However, the quality of the studies was low, and the researchers drew no definitive conclusions.

A 2014 review of 13 small trials also showed inconclusive evidence to support the activity as a preventative measure against cardiovascular disease.

However, the results of one trial, which followed people after a recent heart attack, demonstrated that tai chi significantly improved maximum oxygen capacity.

Improves Mood

Benefits of Tai chi may help improve your mood if you are depressed or anxious. Preliminary research suggests that regularly practicing tai chi can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. It’s believed that the slow, mindful breaths and movements have a positive effect on the nervous system and mood-regulating hormones. Further research is being done to establish a clear link between tai chi and improved mood.

Better Sleep

Regularly practicing tai chi may help you to have more restful sleep.

One study followed young adults with anxiety after they were prescribed two tai chi classes each week, for 10 weeks. Based on participant reporting, the individuals who practiced tai chi experienced significant improvements in their quality of sleep compared to those in the control group. This same group also experienced a decrease in their anxiety symptoms.

Benefits of Tai chi can improve sleep for older adults, too. In a study published in 2016, researchers found that two months of twice-weekly tai chi classes was associated with better sleep in older adults with cognitive impairment.

Improve Muscle Strength, Balance and Flexibility

Improve Muscle Strength, Balance and Flexibility

A systematic review of older patients with chronic conditions who engaged in regular tai chi exercise found that, in addition participants’ physiological and psychosocial benefits, the practice also appeared to promote better balance control, flexibility, strength, respiratory and cardiovascular function. Researchers noted, however, that it was difficult to state firm conclusions about the reported benefits and called for more well-defined studies to drill down to specific, verifiable results. In other research, a clinical trial of older women with osteoarthritis who completed a 12-week tai chi exercise program found participants experienced improved arthritic symptoms (less pain), balance and physical function. Researchers urged a larger-sample longitudinal study to confirm use of tai chi in arthritis exercise management.

Joint Health

Many forms of ordinary exercise subject the shoulders, knees, the back and other joints to ill-conceived, repetitive, unnatural movements. As such, a great number of active people eventually develop joint problems. However, classical Tai Chi, through the experience of multiple generations of practitioners who practiced from a young age until the end of life, fully grasps the importance of proper postures and movements to protect and strengthen the practitioner’s joints for long-term, repetitive practice.

Improves Fibromyalgia Symptoms

Benefits of Tai chi may compliment traditional methods for management of certain chronic diseases.

Results from a 2018 study showed that a consistent tai chi practice can decrease the symptoms of fibromyalgia in some people. Participants in the study who practiced tai chi for 52 weeks exhibited greater improvements in their fibromyalgia-related symptoms when compared to participants practicing aerobics. Learn about other alternative treatments for fibromyalgia symptoms.

See Improvements in Cardiovascular Fitness

Millions of Americans exercise to help boost their cardiovascular health. Yet, many who do so do not realize the research-backed evidence that certain types of exercise specifically benefit cardiovascular function. Indeed, zeroing in on what types of exercise benefit the heart in healthy adults is only recently attracting researcher interest. A review of 20 studies of healthy adults comparing tai chi exercise with non-intervention found that tai chi has a significant impact in improving heart efficiency by reducing resting blood pressure, resting heart rate, and enhancing stroke outcome and cardiac output at quiet reading. The review also found significant improvement in respiratory function from tai chi exercise.

Internal Organ Health

Tai Chi’s fluid spiraling and bending movements, as well as its breathing and meditation components, massage the internal organs and release them from damaging constrictions brought about by stress, poor posture, and difficult working conditions. It also aids the exchange of gases in the lungs and help the digestive system to work better.

Reduces Pain from Arthritis

Reduces pain from arthritisIn a small-scale 2010 study, 15 participants with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) practiced tai chi for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, the participants reported less pain and improved mobility and balance.

A larger, earlier study found similar results in people with knee osteoarthritis (OA). In this study, 40 participants with knee OA practiced 60 minutes of tai chi, two times a week for 12 weeks. Following the study, participants reported a reduction in pain and an improvement in mobility and quality of life.

When compared to physical therapy, tai chi has also been found to be as effective in the treatment of knee OA.

Always talk to your doctor before starting tai chi if you have arthritis. You may need to do modified versions of some of the movements.

Read more What Is Tai Chi? Why You Should Know it

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