April 27th was World Tai Chi Day, an annual celebration (the last Saturday in April each year) where thousands of participants in over 80 countries around the world host tai chi demonstrations and events. Observers get to see elaborate sword forms and fan dances, as well as the more mundane tai chi forms often enjoyed by the senior set. What might not be so obvious are the myriad benefits tai chi confers on practitioners. As a 2015 article in the Harvard Health Publication said, “Tai chi is often described as “meditation in motion,” but it might well be called “medication in motion.” 1“The health benefits of tai chi.” 4 December 2015. Harvard Health Publishing. 2 May 2019. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-health-benefits-of-tai-chi
Here are eight things to know that can help you reap maximum benefit from tai chi.
- Almost anyone can practice tai chi. I’ve heard people say that they wouldn’t take tai chi classes because they aren’t good at memorizing steps. The fact is you don’t need to be good at memorizing steps; you don’t need to be flexible or graceful; you don’t need to be coordinated or even any particular age. You just need to be willing to be a beginner, to learn one movement at a time, one sequence at a time, and to find a class that’s geared to beginners or to those at your fitness level. There are forms of tai chi well suited to elderly people with physical limitations as well as forms suited to the young and athletic.
- Tai Chi is not one practice. There are five main styles of tai chi (and numerous variations).2https://www.taichi.ca/about-what-is-tai-chi-taiji-quan-qi-gong-push-hands-yang-chen-wu-sun-hao-mississuaga-brampton-maple-vaughan-etobicoke-toronto/the-5-family-styles-of-tai-chi-taiji-quan-qi-gong-yang-chen-wu-sun-hao/ The Yang style is the most common style practiced in the US, and it involves large, graceful, slow, circular movements. The Chen style, which is the oldest, is far more vigorous and closer to martial arts, involving plenty of jumps, punches, and stomps. It’s practiced low to the ground, so leg and core strength needs to be developed, making it a fun and challenging style for the physically fit. Wu, Hao, and Sun styles, in contrast, use higher stances and more compact movements, making them perfect for seniors. Sun style is faster and more dance-like than the others, and Wu is more internal, like Chi Gung, plus it relies on leaning forward or backward while other styles demand an upright posture.
Within each of these styles, there are many forms. For instance, if you practice Yang Style, you might begin with the basic “Yang 8-form,” which consists of only eight movements, and eventually progress to the “Yang Long Form,” which has 108 movements. More advanced Yang forms may use weapons such as swords or fans.
What style should you choose? If multiple classes are offered near your home, consider your age and fitness level. For more fit individuals, Chen style can be a great match. If you have physical limitations, you’ll probably do better with one of the other forms. Yang style is a great compromise, suitable to both beginners and advanced students, depending on the teacher and form offered.
- There are tai chi forms intended to help with specific health conditions. If you have a medical condition that you believe would preclude you from taking tai chi, consider that the Tai Chi for Health Institute has developed tai chi forms that address specific health problems, and many hundreds of instructors worldwide are certified to teach these classes. Plus, you can take classes online via streaming video. Current offerings include Tai Chi for Arthritis, Tai Chi for Fall Prevention, Tai Chi for Back Pain, Tai Chi for Osteoporosis, Tai Chi for Diabetes, Tai Chi for Energy, and Tai Chi for Rehabilitation. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and numerous other organizations have endorsed these courses.
On the other hand, you don’t need these specialized courses to get help with health problems. Any general tai chi class will help with these issues, as long as the form practiced is gentle enough for your limitations.
- Tai Chi benefits are myriad and profound. We’ve written in the past about how tai chi decreases arthritis pain, combats depression, and improves heart health. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
- Tai Chi improves balance, reduces falls, and lessens the fear of falling. Several studies have confirmed that those who practice tai chi several times a week have significantly fewer falls than those who do other forms of exercise.3Hosseini, Lida et al. “Tai Chi Chuan can improve balance and reduce the fear of falling in community dwelling older adults: a randomized control trial.” 27 December 2018. Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation. 3 May 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6323335/ That’s because tai chi emphasizes constantly shifting weight from one leg to the other, giving practice in catching oneself when off-balance. It also strengthens core and leg muscles and incorporates one-legged moves.
One study published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine followed 670 elderly subjects who were at high risk of falling.4Huber, Jennifer. “Tai chi may help prevent older adults from falling, study finds.” SCOPE Stanford University. 3 May 2019. https://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2018/09/13/tai-chi-may-help-prevent-older-adults-from-falling-a-study-finds/ The participants were divided into three groups. One group followed a well-rounded exercise regimen that included aerobic, strength, flexibility, and balance exercises. Another did just stretching exercises. The third group practiced a simple tai chi routine including eight movements. All three groups did their exercises in two weekly hour-long sessions. By the end of 24 weeks, the tai chi group had suffered 58 percent fewer falls than the stretching group and 31 percent fewer than the group doing well-rounded exercises. These improvements in balance can be particularly helpful to the elderly and those with Parkinson’s Disease.
- Tai Chi Reduces Stress. Numerous studies have concluded that tai chi reduces stress. Most recently, Dr. Shin Lin, a professor of biochemistry at UC Irvine, measured the physiological effects of tai chi.5“Defeating Stress: UC Irvine Professor Studies Benefits of Tai Chi.” 10 May 2016. CBS Los Angeles. 3 May 2019. https://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2016/05/10/defeating-stress-uc-irvine-professor-studies-benefits-of-tai-chi/ Dr. Lin attached electrodes to his students while they did tai chi to measure their brain waves, heart rate, blood flow, and temperature. His results showed that tai chi generated significant reductions in the stress response. He explains that the repetitive movements performed in tai chi generate more neurons in the hippocampus area of the brain, and that these neurons suppress the stress response, leading to reduced blood pressure.
- Tai Chi Enhances the immune response. Dr. Shin Lin also studied how tai chi affects immunity. He followed up on a UCLA clinical study of 112 adults between the ages of 59 and 81.6Hitti, Miranda. “Tai Chi May Boost Immune System.” 29 March 2007. WebMD. 4 May 2019. https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/shingles/news/20070329/tai-chi-may-boost-immune-system In that research, half of the subjects took tai chi classes three times a week for 40 minutes, and the other half of the subjects took health education classes during the same time period instead. At the end of four months, all the participants received a shingles vaccine and then their immune response was measured for the next two months. By the end of the study, those who had taken tai chi had twice the level of antibodies to shingles, on average, compared to those who took just the health classes.
Dr. Shin followed up by dividing subjects into two groups. One got the shingles vaccine, and the other group simply did tai chi, no vaccine. After six weeks of tai chi practice, his students had levels of shingles antibodies equivalent to those who got vaccinated.
- Tai Chi Improves Sleep. A related benefit associated with tai chi is improved sleep. A 2016 study of 75 young adults suffering from anxiety had significantly better sleep scores after practicing tai chi twice a week for 10 weeks.7Caldwell, Karen L. et al. “Effects of tai chi chuan on anxiety and sleep quality in young adults: Lessons from a randomized controlled feasibility study.” August 2016. Nature and Science of Sleep. 3 May 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5118018/ A similar 2016 study involving seniors with cognitive impairment also found that tai chi had a significant positive impact on sleep quality. Numerous other studies support these results.8Chan, Aileen W.K., et al. “Tai chi qigong as a means to improve night-time sleep quality among older adults with cognitive impairment: a pilot randomized controlled trial.” 16 September 2016. Clinical Interventions in Aging. 3 May 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5034925/
These are just some of the benefits tai chi can confer. Like yoga, tai chi feels great to do. To find a class, check at your local YMCA, senior center, or martial arts studio. You might want to shop around to find an instructor and class that feel comfortable to you. And make it a goal to actively participate in next April’s World Tai Chi Day yourself.