Emerging evidence supports its brain, mood, heart, and breathing benefits
Tai chi is a Chinese mind-body exercise of ancient origins.
It started as a form of self-defense, but has evolved into a slow, gentle form of exercise.
Tai chi movements flow gracefully from one to the other, keeping the body in constant, rhythmic motion.
Like yoga, tai chi seeks to help the practitioner unite movement, meditation and breath.
Previous studies have linked tai chi to pain reflief as well as better balance, strength, flexibility, and mood.
Tai chi is great exercise for all ages — especially older adults.
And recent findings reveal new benefits while reinforcing the evidence for others.
Want to see what tai chi looks like? See "Online tai chi lessons", below. Note: We can't vouch for or endorse the instructors or their techniques.
Benefit #1 – Prevent dangerous falls in older adults
Previous research has shown that tai chi can help improve balance control and flexibility in older people.
Last year, health science researchers from Spain’s University of Jaén published the first meta-analysis of studies designed to measure tai chi’s effects on the risk for falls (Lomas-Vega R et al. 2017)
And the results indicate that tai chi may offer a simple way for older adults to prevent injuries from a fall — which can be fatal or trigger a cascade of health problems.
For their research, Dr. Rafael Lomas-Vega, Ph.D., and his colleagues examined 10 existing clinical trials that compared the effects of tai chi to other options, such as physical therapy and low-intensity exercise.
Their analysis showed that tai chi axed the rate of falls by over 40% compared with other interventions.
Looking at falls that result in injuries, some evidence showed that tai chi reduced the risk by 50% over the short term and by 28% over the long term.
According to Dr. Lomas-Vega, “Tai chi practice may be recommended to prevent falls in at-risk adults and older adults.”
However, his team added an important caveat in their conclusions: “Due to the low quality of evidence, more studies investigating the effects of tai chi on injurious falls and time to first fall are required.”
Benefit #2 – Reduce depression
The second study, conducted by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), examined the effects of 12 weeks of tai chi lessons on a group of Chinese-Americans with mild to moderate depression.
Participants were assigned to one of three groups, with only the first two groups participating in an “active” intervention:
- Tai chi lessons
- Educational sessions on stress, mental health and depression
- No intervention
Over the course of 12 weeks, the two groups of “active” participants had either twice weekly tai chi sessions for 12 weeks and were asked to practice an additional three times a week at home, or they met twice weekly for 12 weeks for mental health education (Yeung AS et al. 2017).
The end-of-study evaluations found that the tai chi group had significant improvement in depression symptoms compared to either of the control groups. A follow-up evaluation three months later found continued improvement among the tai chi group.
Lead author Albert Yeung, M.D., Sc.D., stressed the significance of their findings: “While some previous studies have suggested that tai chi may be useful in treating anxiety and depression, most have used it as a supplement to treatment for others medical conditions, rather than patients with depression.”
In other words, his team study was the first to show that by itself, tai chi can help alleviate depression.
Benefit #3 – Help recovery after a heart attack
Following a heart attack or heart surgery, more than 60% of patients refuse to participate in cardiac rehabilitation.
Concerned by this, the American Heart Association obtained funding from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) for a study by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Brown University.
The study included 29 physically inactive heart disease patients (8 women and 21 men, average age 67.9 years) who expressed an interest in a Tai Chi program (Salmoirago-Blotcher E et al. 2017).
Although the majority had experienced a previous heart attack or procedure to open a blocked artery, all had declined cardiac rehabilitation and continued to have many high-risk characteristics, including smoking (27.6%), diabetes (48.3%), high cholesterol (75.9%), and overweight (35%) or obese (45%).
All had received physician clearance to undergo Tai Chi training and none had orthopedic problems (such as recent joint replacement surgery) that would preclude doing Tai Chi.
They randomly assigned to be dispensed to one of two regimens:
- LITE, a shorter program with 24 classes over 12 weeks
- PLUS, a longer program with 52 classes over 24 weeks.
All the participants received a DVD to use for home practice during and after receiving the classes.
The results showed these advantages for tai chi:
- Enjoyed by participants (100% would recommend it to a friend)
- Practical, with patients attending about 66% of scheduled classes
- Raised the weekly amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity after three to six months
Lead author Elena Salmoirago-Blotcher, M.D., Ph.D., characterized the results this way: “We thought that Tai Chi might be a good option for these people because you can start very slowly and simply and, as their confidence increases, the pace and movements can be modified to increase intensity. Tai Chi exercise can reach low-to-moderate intensity levels. The emphasis on breathing and relaxation can also help with stress reduction and psychological distress.”
This was the first study to examine whether tai chi could encourage valuable exercise in this large, high-risk population — and the results suggest that it can.
Benefit #4 – Boosts breathing function in patients with COPD
Tai chi was also studied as a therapy for adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Like cardiac rehab, pulmonary rehabilitation (PR) is often hard to access and has a low rate of compliance.
In this study, researchers from Britain and the China found that tai chi had similar benefits to pulmonary rehab for improving breathing function in patients with COPD (Polkey MI et al. 2017).
COPD causes difficulty breathing, and symptoms include cough, mucus, and wheezing. People with COPD are at a higher risk of heart disease and lung cancer.
As you’d expect, improvement of COPD symptoms can greatly improve a patient’s quality of life.
This study followed 120 patients with COPD in rural China who’d never used bronchodilators (drugs used to open the airways).
In addition to daily treatment with indacaterol, which is used to treat COPD, study participants were assigned to a group receiving traditional pulmonary rehab or tai chi.
Initially, both groups showed similar improvements on a breathing questionnaire. However, after 12 weeks, the tai chi group began to enjoy easier breathing and scored better in walking tests.
As lead author Michael I. Polkey, Ph. D., said, “This study demonstrates that a low-cost exercise intervention is equivalent to formal pulmonary rehabilitation, and this may enable a greater number of patients to be treated ...”.
Benefit #5 – Improves brain function and use of energy in muscles
The final study provides initial insight into how tai chi affects human health, by examining its physical and psychological effects (Zhou M et al. 2018).
This initial, small-scale study — from scientists in China and at Harvard Medical School — used MRI machines to measure the effects of a 12-week tai chi program on brain and muscle chemistry in six adults.
As the researchers wrote, “Recent literature suggests the use of Tai Chi to treat both physical and psychological disorders, including stroke, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury, and depression. However, the beneficial mechanisms of Tai Chi are not well understood. Noninvasive and objective measures are required to better understand the physiological changes that the brain and body undergo during Tai Chi training.”
Overall, the MRI scans revealed significant increases in a marker of brain function as well as significantly improved recovery rates in leg muscles after exercise.
This promising study adds objective data to enhance the understanding over tai chi’s ability to improve mental AND physical function – a true mind-body exercise.
Online tai chi lessons
if you want to give tai chi a try, we found some video lessons on YouTube.
We can’t vouch for the quality of any of the instructors, but they appear to be experienced.
As with any exercise program it makes sense to first check with your health practitioner if you have any concerns about your physical abilities.
These are some of the lessons we found:
- Tai Chi for Beginners Video by Dr Paul Lam
- Easy Tai Chi – a 9-minute Daily Practice
- Top 10 Tai Chi Moves for Beginners
And for those who want to see how tai chi can be used for self-defense, we found another video: Tai Chi Fighting
Needless to say, you should receive professional in-person instruction on the self-defense uses of tai chi, rather than trying it on your own.
- Lomas-Vega R, Obrero-Gaitán E, Molina-Ortega FJ, Del-Pino-Casado R. Tai Chi for Risk of Falls. A Meta-analysis. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2017 Sep;65(9):2037-2043. doi: 10.1111/jgs.15008. Epub 2017 Jul 24. Review. PubMed PMID: 28736853.
- Polkey MI, Qiu ZH, Zhou L, Zhu MD, Wu YX, Chen YY, Ye SP, He YS, Jiang M, He BT, Mehta B, Zhong NS, Luo YM. Tai Chi and Pulmonary Rehabilitation Compared for Treatment-Naive Patients With COPD: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Chest. 2018 May;153(5):1116-1124. doi: 10.1016/j.chest.2018.01.053. Epub 2018 Apr 3. PubMed PMID: 29625777.
- Salmoirago-Blotcher E, Wayne PM, Dunsiger S, Krol J, Breault C, Bock BC, Wu WC, Yeh GY. Tai Chi Is a Promising Exercise Option for Patients with Coronary Heart Disease Declining Cardiac Rehabilitation. J Am Heart Assoc. 2017 Oct 11;6(10). pii: e006603. doi: 10.1161/JAHA.117.006603. PubMed PMID: 29021268; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5721863.
- Yeung AS, Feng R, Kim DJH, Wayne PM, Yeh GY, Baer L, Lee OE, Denninger JW, Benson H, Fricchione GL, Alpert J, Fava M. A Pilot, Randomized Controlled Study of Tai Chi with Passive and Active Controls in the Treatment of Depressed Chinese Americans. J Clin Psychiatry. 2017 May;78(5):e522-e528. doi: 10.4088/JCP.16m10772. PubMed PMID: 28570792.
- Zhou M, Liao H, Sreepada LP, Ladner JR, Balschi JA, Lin AP. Tai Chi Improves Brain Metabolism and Muscle Energetics in Older Adults. J Neuroimaging. 2018 Apr 17. doi: 10.1111/jon.12515. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 29667260.