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Slow and Steady: The Health Benefits of Tai Chi

The ancient practice of smooth, purposeful movement can help balance your body and mind

couple performing tai chi

Have you ever watched someone do tai chi? They look like they’re moving in slow motion. But can moving at that snail-like pace really do much good for your body?

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Yes! Those gentle, flowing movements have some big benefits.

Personal trainer and Oriental medicine specialist Tim Sobo, LAc, CPT, CES, explains how tai chi can help you find balance — both physical and mental.

What is tai chi?

Tai chi is a gentle, low-impact form of exercise in which you perform a series of motions while focusing on deep, slow breaths. “It’s sometimes called ’meditation in motion’ because it’s a series of exercises that can help harmonize your body’s energy and mind,” Sobo explains.

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

But qi or no qi, tai chi can help you meet your exercise goals through its slow, purposeful movements, which 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 further explains. “Your goal is to make the moves flow together. You move your whole body as a unit. And because strength and balance are required, tai chi is great for your muscles and bones.”

Health benefits of tai chi

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

“There’s evidence to suggest that tai chi is beneficial for overall muscle strength, joint health, flexibility, and improving balance and coordination,” Sobo says.

Let’s delve deeper into some of its biggest health benefits.

Helps reduce stress

If you’re feeling the pressure of daily life, you may find that tai chi brings you the sense of quiet and calm that you crave.

One small study of “healthy but stressed people” showed that practicing tai chi for 12 weeks significantly lowered their anxiety levels — maybe even better than other forms of exercise.

Why? Chalk it up to mindfulness. To successfully practice tai chi, you have to think about your breathing and movements, which takes your mind away from whatever else may be bugging you.

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

Can improve balance

Falls can be dangerous and even deadly, especially in older adults. Tai chi may be able to help.

A review of 10 studies on tai chi and balance found that people who practiced tai chi had up to 50% fewer falls than those who didn’t. And tai chi has been shown to help lower fall risks for people with Parkinson’s specifically.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Geriatric Society Clinical Practice Guidelines both recognize tai chi as an effective way to lower your fall risk.

Good for your brain

The older you get, the more difficult it becomes to easily switch from one task to another. But studies show that for some people, tai chi might be able to help.

A small study of people in their 60s found that those who practiced tai chi daily for 12 weeks were better able 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.

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Another study showed that when older adults with memory issues practiced tai chi three times a week for six months, they experienced “significantly improved memory.”

May help with depression

When combined with medication, tai chi may be able to help relieve symptoms of depression and get you feeling more like yourself again.

One study looked at older adults who took escitalopram (aka Lexapro®) to treat major depression. It found that adding in just two hours of tai chi per week helped improve their depression symptoms. Another study saw similar results in psychiatric patients of varying ages, but larger studies are still needed to say for sure.

May help with fibromyalgia pain

Fibromyalgia can cause full-body pain that can, at times, be debilitating. Could tai chi help bring some relief? A randomized study compared the effects of tai chi and aerobic exercise on people with fibromyalgia, finding that those who practiced tai chi found more symptom relief than those who didn’t.

Can help with knee osteoarthritis

Studies show that a weekly tai chi practice can help relieve some of the pain of osteoarthritis in the knees — so well, in fact, that the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) and the Arthritis Foundation “strongly recommend” tai chi as a means of managing osteoarthritis pain.

Other benefits of tai chi

Here are a few additional checks in the “pro” column:

  • Affordable: You don’t need special equipment or expertise to start doing tai chi. You can do it at home using instructional videos, making it a free or low-cost option.
  • Low-impact: Tai chi doesn’t call for the same flexibility as yoga, nor is it as strenuous as other forms of exercise, making it easier on your joints and muscles. And you don’t have to be in shape already in order to do it. “Your fitness level doesn’t matter,” Sobo notes.
  • Accessible: You should always check with a healthcare provider before starting a new activity, including tai chi. But on the whole, because it’s so low-impact, people of nearly any age can practice tai chi. It’s also generally thought to be safe for people with various medical issues, including heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

How to start practicing tai chi

If you’ve never tried tai chi, there’s no need to be intimidated. “Whether you’re 16 or 85, you can do tai chi to your fitness level,” Sobo encourages. “You can modify anything. Do the moves within your limits.”

There are different types of tai chi, each with their own series of exercises. They range from doing five poses to more than 100! When you find a style that appeals to you, talk to your healthcare provider to be sure it’s safe for you, especially if you have any health conditions or pain.

Once you’ve gotten the go-ahead, it’s time to run (errr, move slowly) with it. Here’s how to make tai chi part of your life:

  1. Grab your phone or tablet and search for a tai chi instructional video for beginners (like this five-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.

Just make sure you’re being safe and paying attention to your body. “Don’t push anything,” Sobo says. “You shouldn’t feel any sharp pain when you’re practicing tai chi.”

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How often should you do tai chi?

You can practice tai chi as often as you want. “Since it’s not weight training or long-distance running, many people can safely do 20 minutes of tai chi every day,” Sobo clarifies. “Your body doesn’t need a day to recover.”

Importantly, the more you practice tai chi, the better you’ll get — and the more you do it, the quicker you’ll learn the routine.

“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. You’ll learn to do them more smoothly and go deeper into them.”

He says your ultimate goal should be to move so slowly and smoothly that you could balance a plate on your head. (But maybe don’t start with your grandmother’s heirloom china!) Even if you never reach that level, don’t stress. It’s an art form, not a competition — so just do the best you can.

“Go to your comfort level,” Sobo says, “and over time, you’ll notice improvements in your health.”

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