The Health Benefits of Tai Chi

Learn how this ancient practice of slow, smooth movements can boost your mind and body
couple performing tai chi

Have you ever seen a tai chi class? The participants look like they’re moving in slow motion. But are they really getting fit by not moving fast?

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Yes! Those gentle, flowing movements have some hardcore benefits. Tim Sobo, licensed acupuncturist (LAc), explains how tai chi can help you find balance — both physical and mental.

Slow and steady makes you stronger

Tai chi has been a pillar of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for centuries. Its movements are designed to energize and balance your body’s energy, or qi (pronounced “chee”). According to TCM principles, when your qi is balanced, your body can function at its best.

Even if you’re not worried about your qi at the moment, tai chi can help you meet your exercise goals. Tai chi’s slow, purposeful movements require strength and coordination that can challenge all fitness levels.

“When you practice tai chi, you’re not trying to see how fast you can move,” Sobo explains. “Your goal is to make the moves flow together. You move your whole body as a unit. And since strength and balance are required, tai chi is great for your muscles and bones.”

If you’ve never tried tai chi, there’s no need to be intimidated.

“Fitness level doesn’t matter,” Sobo says. “You can modify anything. Do the moves within your limits. Whether you’re 16 or 85, you can do it at your fitness level.”

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There are different types of tai chi, each with their own series of exercises. Find one that appeals to you and run (or move slowly) with it. They range from doing five poses to more than 100. And because it’s low impact, people of nearly any age can practice tai chi. 

“Think of tai chi as a form of dance,” Sobo explains. “You can learn dance steps within a few days. But you can spend a lifetime mastering the dance. Once you’ve learned the tai chi moves, aim to get better at them each day. Do them more smoothly and go deeper into them.”

Sobo says your goal should be to move so slowly and smoothly that you could balance a plate on your head. Beginners may not want to use their grandmother’s heirloom china. But even if you can’t do this, don’t stress. Tai chi is an art form, where you do the best you can. It’s not a competition.

Mindfulness meditation in motion

Speaking of stress, try some tai chi the next time you’re feeling the pressure of daily life. You may find that it gives you the quiet and calm you need.

To successfully practice tai chi, you have to think about your breathing and movements. You enter a state of mindfulness, where you forget about whatever is bugging you.

“Tai chi’s movements require you to focus on breathing and movement together. It’s like meditation in motion,” Sobo says. “You’re focused on what you’re doing rather than on everything else going on in your life. The practice of being mindful is a great stress reliever.”

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Scientific benefits of tai chi

There are hundreds of studies on tai chi. Researchers have found that it can help with many health concerns, including:

  • Fibromyalgia relief: A randomized study compared the effects of tai chi and aerobic exercise on people who had fibromyalgia. Out of 226 adults, those who practiced tai chi had more relief of fibromyalgia symptoms.
  • Thinking power: A study of 31 older adults found that those who practiced tai chi for 12 weeks had a better ability to switch between tasks than those who didn’t practice it. They also had more activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking skills.
  • Depression management: A study of 112 older adults with major depression found that tai chi helped improve depression symptoms. The tai chi group had fewer symptoms and even remission in some cases.
  •  Fall risk: Falls can be dangerous and even deadly, especially in older adults. A meta-analysis found that people who practiced tai chi had up to 50% fewer falls than those who didn’t.

Getting started with tai chi

You don’t need special equipment or expertise to start doing tai chi. Here’s how to make it part of your life:

  1. Grab your phone or tablet. Search for a tai chi instructional video for beginners. (Try this 5-week easy tai chi course.)
  2. Put on some comfortable clothes and sneakers and grab a bottle of water.
  3. Find some open space, either indoors or out.
  4.  Follow along with your video and practice the moves.
  5. Stick with it for a few weeks — and enjoy feeling stronger and calmer.

How often should you practice tai chi?

You can do tai chi as often as you want. The more you do it, the quicker you’ll learn the routine. If you have any health conditions or pain, talk with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

“Since it’s not weight training or long-distance running, many people can safely do 20 minutes of tai chi every day,” Sobo says. “Your body doesn’t need a day to recover. You should not feel any sharp pain when you’re practicing tai chi. Go to your comfort level. Over time, you’ll notice improvements in your health.”

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