While eastern practices such as yoga and meditation have become mainstream as more people discover its tremendous mental and physical benefits, another traditional eastern practice has stayed relatively unknown. That is the practice of Tai Chi. Tai Chi Chuan is a martial arts developed by Zhang San Feng in the 12th century AD. But since its inception, it has gradually turned from a martial arts system to an exercise system that provides great health benefits for its practitioners. So while it is rather new when compared to yoga and meditation, it is used by millions in Asia as an exercise system to improve mental and physical health.
A lot of studies have been done on the physical benefits of Tai Chi on older adults and not so much on younger-and middle-age practicioners. But the studies all show one thing; practicing Tai Chi improves sleep quality, mental health, mobility, strength, balance, posture, and overall health. To go into deeper detail about the specific benefits of Tai Chi, we are going to talk about scientific findings that support the various benefits of Tai Chi. The following list are things that Tai Chi can help with.
Physical strength. In a 2006 study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, Stanford University researchers reported benefits of Tai Chi in 39 women and men, average age 66, with below-average fitness and at least one cardiovascular risk factor. After taking 36 Tai chi classes in 12 over the course of 12 weeks, the participants showed gains in both lower body and upper body strength. Upper body strength was measured by arm curls and lower body strength was measured by the number of times the person can rise from their chair in 30 seconds. The tests may be simple, but you have to remember that the experimental subjects are 66 years old on average.
In a Japanese study that used the same measures of strength, 113 older adults were assigned different exercise programs over the course of 12 weeks. The exercise programs included brisk walking, resistance strength training, and of course, Tai Chi. People who did Tai Chi showed a 30 percent improvement in lower body strength and a 25 percent improvement in upper body strength. These gains almost matched those of resistance training.
According to Dr. Gloria Yeh, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “Tai chi strengthens both the lower and upper extremities and also the core muscles of the back and abdomen.”
Flexibility. Women in the 2006 Stanford study significantly boosted upper-and lower body flexibility as well as strength.
Balance. Tai Chi improves balance and, according to some studies, reduces falls. Proprioception — the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space — declines with age. Tai Chi helps train this sense, which is a function of sensory neurons in the inner ear and stretch receptors in the muscles and ligaments. Tai Chi also improves muscle strength and flexibility, which makes it easier to recover from a stumble.
Arthritis. In a 40-person study at Tufts University, presented in October 2008 at a meeting of the American College of Rheumatology, an hour of Tai Chi twice a week for 12 weeks reduced pain and improved mood and physical functioning more than standard stretching exercises in people with severe knee osteoarthritis. According to a Korean study published in December 2008 in Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, eight weeks of Tai Chi classes followed by eight weeks of home practice significantly improved flexibility and slowed the disease process in patients with ankylosing spondylitis.
Low bone density. A review of six controlled studies by Dr. Wayne and other Harvard researchers indicates that Tai Chi may be a safe and effective way to maintain bone density in postmenopausal women. A controlled study of Tai Chi in women with osteopenia (diminished bone density not as severe as osteoporosis) is under way at the Osher Research Center and Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Breast cancer. Tai Chi has shown potential for improving quality of life and functional capacity in performing activities of daily living women suffering from breast cancer or the side effects of breast cancer treatment. For example, a 2008 study at the University of Rochester, published in Medicine and Sport Science, found that quality of life and functional capacity (including aerobic capacity, muscular strength, and flexibility) improved in women with breast cancer who did 12 weeks of Tai Chi, while the same factors declined in a control group of breast cancer patients that received only supportive therapy.
Heart disease. A 53-person study at National Taiwan University found that a year of Tai Chi significantly boosted exercise capacity, lowered blood pressure, and improved levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin, and C-reactive protein in people at high risk for heart disease. The study, which was published in the September 2008 Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found no improvement in a control group that did not practice Tai Chi.
Heart failure. In a 30-person pilot study at Harvard Medical School, 12 weeks of Tai Chi improved participants’ ability to walk and quality of life. It also reduced blood levels of B-type natriuretic protein, an indicator of heart failure.
Hypertension. In a review of 26 studies in English or Chinese published in Preventive Cardiology (Spring 2008), Dr. Yeh reported that in 85 percent of trials, Tai Chi lowered blood pressure.
Parkinson’s disease. A 33-person pilot study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, published in Gait and Posture (October 2008), found that people with mild to moderately severe Parkinson’s disease showed improved balance, walking ability, and overall well-being after 20 Tai Chi sessions.
Sleep problems. In a University of California, Los Angeles, study of 112 healthy older adults with moderate sleep complaints, 16 weeks of Tai Chi improved the quality and duration of sleep significantly more than the control group, which received standard sleep education. The study was published in the July 2008 issue of the journal Sleep.
Stroke. In 136 patients who’d had a stroke at least six months earlier, 12 weeks of Tai Chi improved standing balance more than a general exercise program that entailed breathing, stretching, and mobilizing muscles and joints involved in sitting and walking. Findings were published in the January 2009 issue of Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair.
Stress relief. Although you are not sitting upright, closing your eyes, and thinking of nothing, Tai Chi is a meditative practice in and of itself. The act of focusing on the movement of your hands as you perform the various Tai Chi forms is a form of meditation. As you do it, you will feel the stress just flow away and tension of your shoulders release.
Although most of the cited studies above are geared towards people above 60, don’t be shy to practice it if you are younger than 60. Josh Waitzkin, the child prodigy that the movie Finding Bobby Fischer was based off of, is also a national Tai Chi champion. He talks first-hand about the various benefits of Tai Chi. You can read his account in his book, The Art of Learning.
H/T to Harvard University for the information on the studies.