Tai Chi. It Does a Body Good.

By Amber McCracken, GHI Blog Contributor


The Health Benefits of this Chinese Martial Art

In a recent Good Life blog post, we examined the benefits of meditation for the mind, body and spirit. Taking that one step further, we decided to explore tai chi, often described as “mediation with movement.” Beautiful movements, in fact. For those unfamiliar with the practice, one may mistake a tai chi class for an actual dance, a slow choreography of flowing motion in unison. If you visit our Life Plan Communities, you will discover that this is one of our most popular group exercise programs — so popular that classes are full, every time.

To understand tai chi, you have to understand its origin, which dates back nearly 3,000 years. Initially developed as a Chinese martial art form, tai chi focuses on the body’s natural energy. Dr. Paul Lam of the Tai Chi for Health Institutes explains: “The principles are based on the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, which stresses the natural balance in all things and the need for living in spiritual and physical accord with the patterns of nature. According to this philosophy, everything is composed of two opposite, but entirely complementary, elements of yin and yang, working in a relationship which is in perpetual balance. Tai Chi consists of exercises equally balanced between yin and yang, which is why it is so remarkably effective.”

Practiced primarily today as a low-impact exercise, it involves a series of slow, constant movements designed to help with balance and to relieve the stress that is blocking your natural energy flow. It is considered to be safe for people of all ages because it does not put too much stress on the muscles and joints. According to the Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 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.” 

Reaping the Benefits

While this may seem a bit new-age, there is growing evidence that this mind-body practice has value in treating or preventing many health problems.  The following potential health benefits are listed on the Mayo Clinic’s website:

  • Decreased stress, anxiety and depression
  • Improved mood
  • Improved aerobic capacity
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Improved flexibility, balance and agility
  • Improved muscle strength and definition

Tai chi can be especially helpful for older adults. It’s gentle enough for nearly everyone, even those with limited mobility. Logistically, it can practiced at home in a chair, bed or even from a wheelchair. It requires no prior experience and no equipment. Here are three free videos that focus on tai chi practice for an older population.

Evidence-Based Research

Benefits of tai chi have been supported by a litany of scientific research. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that people with Parkinson’s disease who practiced tai chi experienced significantly improved gait and posture, as well as fewer falls. Tai chi movements rotate the human body in about 95% of the ways the body can move when a long form is practiced. For Parkinson’s sufferers, or anyone for that matter, this would indicate that by “using” 95% of the body’s possible motion several times a week, the possibility of “losing” the ability to do so diminishes accordingly.

According to a research review published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, the authors found that tai chi practiced for 12 to 26 weeks one to three times weekly reduced the incidence of falls by 43 percent (compared to other interventions) in those who were followed for 12 months or less. 

Emerging research suggests that tai chi may also help treat several other health conditions, including back pain. A 2011 study published in Arthritis Care & Research found that a 10-week tai chi program reduced pain and improved functioning in people with long-term low back pain symptoms. The study involved 160 adults with chronic low back pain, half of whom participated in 40-minute-long tai chi sessions 18 times over the 10-week period.

Tai chi produced the same benefits as physical therapy for patients suffering from knee osteoarthritis, according to a study by researchers at the Tufts School of Medicine. There’s also some evidence that tai chi may be an effective for cardiovascular help by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.

Getting Started

If you are interested in getting started with tai chi, consider finding a local class. Yelp lists some options. Here’s an example of a Yelp listing for tai chi near Arlington, VA.

And remember: Before starting any new exercise program, consult your medical care provider. You want to be sure any activity will be safe for you.

Amber McCracken is the executive director of Current Communications, a boutique consultancy that helps organizations with their marketing and public relations activities. Amber has worked with GHI since 2014, providing her expert advice to support Goodwin House at Home. She contributes regularly to The Good Life, both as a writer and editor. Amber lives in North Carolina with her husband and two children. She also serves as the caregiver to both of her parents.