Harvard Scientists Now Back This Ancient Exercise
Eastern medicine practices have always placed a strong emphasis on prevention and treating diseases naturally whenever possible. Now, in many ways, Western medicine is catching up, particularly when it comes to utilizing tai chi moves to improve the mind, body and heart. A growing number of people around the world are now interested in traditional Eastern systems of healing — including Tai chi, yoga, acupuncture and meditation — due to mounting evidence that they can help prevent and treat many health problems such as arthritis, anxiety and chronic pain.
Harvard Medical School reports that although tai chi is a slow and gentle practice, it effectively addresses several core benefits of exercise: boosting muscle strength, maintaining flexibility, increasing and sustaining balance and sometimes even providing an aerobic workout that’s important for your heart. Harvard researchers even recently published a guide to tai chi, stating that a regular practice for as little as 12 weeks could help give you a “healthy body, strong heart and sharp mind.” (1)
What Is Tai Chi?
Tai chi is a mind-body exercise rooted in multiple Asian traditions. It’s one of many types of qigong exercises, which combine the principles of martial arts, controlled breathing, traditional Chinese medicine and Eastern philosophies.
In the West, the deeper meanings and significance of tai chi can be somewhat difficult to explain, considering it has a very long history dating back thousands of years. Tai chi moves also involve components that are not very easy to translate. Tai chi derives its name from the Eastern concept of yin and yang; in fact the black and white circular symbol that represents yin yang is also often used to represent tai chi — since the practice is said to unite “body and mind.” Tai chi is also strongly rooted in another ancient Eastern philosophical concept that is still foreign to most Westerners: “Qi“, which roughly translates to life force or vital energy.
Research shows that tai chi has multiple benefits for both young and older practitioners. However, it’s gained the most attention for its strong anti-aging effects. A report published in the Official Publication of The State Medical Society of Wisconsin states that: “Tai chi is an exercise form especially effective for seniors. Tai chi exercise is a relatively low-tech approach to preventing disability and maintaining physical performance in older adults.” (2)
Who Can Benefit from Tai Chi Moves?
Most Western research involves investigating the health benefits of qigong, particularly tai chi. Increasingly popular in the U.S. and Europe, tai chi moves are customizable for different audiences and well-suited to manage many different health conditions. A 2010 meta-analysis in the American Journal of Health Promotion included more than 70 published articles and found that tai chi offered benefits in several outcome categories: improved bone density, cardiopulmonary effects, physical functioning, quality of life, self-efficacy, psychological symptoms and immune function. (3)
Based on the fact that it can help control stress and lower cortisol levels, lower joint pain, build strength and stamina, reduce the chance of falling or injuries and enhance the immune system, people who can benefit from tai chi moves the most include those with: (4)
- limited physical abilities, including older adults who aren’t able to do intense exercises. Tai chi and other forms of qigong are most popular among middle-aged to older-aged adults. Many practitioners find that it helps them to regain flexibility and strength while helping people remain calm in stressful times. For older adults, tai chi also lowers the risk of falling and can improve recovery time from injuries or illnesses.
- chronic stress
- heart disease, high blood pressure or high cholesterol
- muscle aches and pains
- joint pain, osteoarthritis or tendonitis
- fatigue, low energy, and trouble sleeping
- Learning disabilities, including ADHD
- low immune system function and susceptibility to infections or illnesses
- those with other circulatory, lymphatic, and digestive problems, such as intestinal or kidney problems
6 Benefits of Tai Chi Moves
1. Increased flexibility
As a type of fluid bodyweight exercise, tai chi moves help boost upper- and lower-body flexibility, along with coordination and strength. Tai chi moves are done in many different positions, sometimes standing or sitting, which helps to warm-up, stretch and relax tense muscle and joint tissue. Most tai chi classes or routines begin with a warm-up period to ease into motions, such as shoulder circles, turning the head from side to side, or rocking back and forth. Over time this practice can reduce stiffness, pains, strains, falls, injuries or tears.
2. Improved & better-maintained balance
University of Liverpool researchers found tai chi can improve balance and strength, along with reducing the risk of falls in the elderly, especially those “at high risk.” Tai chi also aids in proprioception, the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space. Proprioception generally declines as someone ages due to changes in inner ear structure, along with decreasing strength of certain muscles and ligaments. Tai chi helps train proprioception sensory neurons in the inner ear and also restore muscle strength and coordination.
One study documented changes in balance and cardiovascular responses for a community of middle-aged women. Relatively sedentary but healthy women 33 to 55 years old took part in tai chi exercise three times per week. After 12 weeks, compared to the control group, the women doing tai chi moves experienced significant improvements in “dynamic balance” measured by the Functional Reach Test. Tai chi also significantly decreased both mean systolic and diastolic blood pressure, showing it has multiple protective benefits for aging adults. (5)
3. Improved muscle strength & conditioning
Tai chi moves can also improve both lower-body strength and upper-body strength simultaneously, even comparable to other forms of gentle resistance training such as yoga or using bands and light cables. Tai chi improves upper body strength by incorporating many unsupported arm exercises that involve holding the arms up. It can also improve the strength of knees and lower body, core muscles, back and abdomen due to incorporating dynamic movements like leg lunges, squatting moves, twists, kicks, crouching and bends. (6)
4. Better heart health
Tai chi helps lower blood pressure by reducing the body’s stress response, improves “gas exchange” and breathing can help reduce inflammation and can sometimes serve as an aerobic workout. Harvard Medical School notes that quicker-moving forms of tai chi have similar benefits to brisk walking. Studies show that a regular tai chi practice helps improve the strength of the heart and durability of the blood vessels and other bodily tissues. It also helps lower inflammatory responses caused by an overactive autonomic nervous system.
5. Lowers stress, anxiety & depression
Many view tai chi as much more than just an exercise. Historically, tai chi boasts a strong spiritual dimension and promotes greater self-awareness. Studies show that tai chi is a natural stress reliever and promotes positive effects on depression and anxiety in a way similar to yoga or other mind-body exercises. (7)
Often people find that the controlled breathing and focus involved in practicing tai chi promotes a calm mind, increased connection to others, patience, compassion, and acceptance. Practicing tai chi outdoors in a natural environment, such as a park or beach, can also lower stress by bringing someone’s attention to how they are connected with their surroundings, a greater purpose and those living around them.
6. Sharper focus
Studies suggest that tai chi’s slow pace, attention to detail and circular motions helps lower “mind chatter” and improve attention. People often describe tai chi as a “moving meditation” because it involves following the breath in a rhythmic way that causes ruminating or wandering thoughts to decrease. Some people also choose to further improve focus by using practices such as visualization, imagery, mantras or affirmations while performing tai chi moves.
Tai Chi Exercises & Workout
People usually practice tai chi as a series of fluid motions that accompany the breath. Series of movements can vary in length from about 15 minutes, all the way up to 2 hours. Chen Meng was a master of tai chi who is now credited with creating a popular, shortened version of traditional tai chi that lasts about 15 minutes. His method, which has influenced many others to create other similar short series, is considered a good practice of tai chi for beginners. (8)
Before you get started practicing tai chi, keep these tips in mind:
- Tai Chi series normally require a significant amount of open space, so it’s common to practice outside in a field or in a large empty room (such as gymnasium).
- Most Tai Chi beginner’s programs last at least 12 weeks, with practices taking place at least twice a week.
- Always make sure to start with a brief warm-up; for several minutes practice simple stretches or calisthenics to move your legs, arms, and back. Wear loose clothing that allows you to move around and stay cool.
- For tai chi beginners, it’s usually best to take things very slow and spend 10 to 20 minutes a day learning just a few postures rather than rushing through an entire routine.
Tai Chi Moves for Beginners:
- Beginner posture: This is the most basic tai chi move (also known as a pose). It requires your feet to be shoulder distance apart, your toes facing slightly inward, knees soft, chest and chin slightly hollowed, and hips slightly tucked. Some describe the pose like you’re sitting in a high stool.
- Tai Chi Basic Stepping: Stepping is an important movement in tai chi, and is required to transition smoothly and gently from one move to the next. Stepping is done in a rolling motion, placing the feet with balanced weight one in front of the other. Keep your center of gravity low while stepping and rolling your entire foot so that both feet rest on the ground in the end position.
- Raising Power: This move is often used as an opening or closing to a series. It’s sometimes also called “Catch a Ball” or “Ball of Energy.” It works by rubbing your hands together and then pulling them apart. Bring them close together once again, but don’t allow them to touch. Feel the warmth and energy (qi) between your hands as you continue to practice this motion, perhaps while stepping at the same time.
- Withdraw and Push: This move is used to “cleanse the body” and requires forward and backward movements like a wave. Start with one foot in front of other, with your weight on your back legs. Circle the hands upward in a wave motion, lift your back heel, roll/shift your weight forward as you picture a wave moving up and through the body.
- Brush Knee: This move helps strengthen the arms, relax the muscles and center the mind. The weight is centered between the legs and arms are held outward. As one hand rises, the other one sinks down (one palm is up and one down) in a rolling motion. As you step forward, your torso turns and arms alternate positions.
- Roll back/Ward Off: This move uses the waist and is done in a diagonal position. Put weight on left leg and turn waist to the left. The right arm curves to hold a ball against your chest, fingers move upward while left arm arcs first downward, then left arm floats up to shoulder height.
- Single Whip: This moving hand position is typically used for jabbing, whipping, striking or even in massage. Place the hand with palm facings downward and the four fingers curled to lightly touch the thumb. The front leg is extended out, body open to the side, front arm moves forward and the wrist bends down as the fingers open and close.
Qigong vs. Tai Chi: How Are They Related?
- Qigong is an ancient Chinese healthcare practice that has been in existence for more than 2,000 years. Tai chi is one form of qigong; it’s far from the only type, but is probably the most well-researched type in existence today.
- There are thousands of different styles of qigong practiced throughout the world, all of which integrate physical postures, breathing techniques and focused intention (just like tai chi does).
- The benefits of different forms of qigong range depending on the exact type. Benefits can include stress reduction, decreased joint pain, improved heart health, better physical functioning, improved balance and protection from falls.
- Some of the things that make tai chi different from other forms of qigong is that tai chi involves a specific series of postures and exercises, while qigong can be practiced in no particular order.
- Tai chi is one of the most popular forms of qigong in the West and is a gentle, slow, flowing style of martial arts. But qigong itself does not always have to be performed this way. For example, qigong can also be static, such as the style called Zhan Zhuag, or very rapid and intense, such as the style called Dayan. Tai chi practices range from anywhere between 10 minutes to 2 hours long.
History Of Tai Chi
As a form of qigong with a history dating back more than 2,000 years, tai chi has been interpreted and influenced by many different leaders. Tai Chi is believed to have been influenced by Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian philosophies. Historically, tai chi training and knowledge were passed down from one master to a dedicated student, which has created distinct lineages and many unique methods.
Tai chi relates to yin/yang in several important ways, including how the practice combines two complimentary, but opposite, forces of energy that lead to overall balance and health.
- The yang aspect of tai chi relates to how the practice increases strength, endurance, and energy, while the yin aspect relates to how it improves concentration, a sense of being grounded and introspection.
- Yin/yang can also be applied to tai chi in that the practice uses opposing parts of the body to improve coordination and balance: left and right and upper and lower.
- Probably the most important way that yin/yang applies to tai chi is how it connects the physical body with the cognitive mind. Tai chi involves movements done simultaneously with controlled breathing and concentration, which helps improve relaxation, attention, self-awareness, and confidence through visualization, intention, and imagery.
“Qi” is another important element that gives tai chi deeper meaning:
- Qi represents energy flow in the body and is said to be balanced and maintained through physical activity, coupled with breathing exercises and concentration. This is why tai chi is said to improve the mind-body connection and offer both physical and emotional benefits at the same time.
- True to most Eastern philosophical and medicinal concepts, tai chi rests on the fact that every aspect of a person and the whole body is connected; the mind affects the body, and the body affects the mind.
Tai Chi Precautions
Tai chi moves are considered a very safe form of exercise even for people with limited abilities, however, there are some circumstances when it’s best to talk with your doctor before starting. If you have an injury that’s still healing, any limiting musculoskeletal problem or you take medications that can make you dizzy or lightheaded if your heart rate goes up, it’s a good idea to get a professional opinion first.It’s recommended that tai chi beginners take an instructed class to learn movements safely and to obtain feedback.
Low-cost senior centers or community education centers often offer tai chi classes. You can always choose to watch instructive videos online for free, too. Keep in mind there are no formal training or licensing requirements in place for tai chi instructors, so seek out a referral in your area and do your research to learn from someone who’s knowledgeable and experienced. The Tai Chi Health Center offers help finding an instructor or becoming an instructor yourself.
Final Thoughts On Tai Chi Moves
- Tai Chi is one form of qigong exercise that has been practiced for thousands of years.
- It combines controlled breathing, concentration, and slow full-body movements.
- Tai chi benefits include stress reduction, decreased joint pain, improved heart health, better physical functioning, improved balance and protection from falls.
- Tai chi moves are safe for people of all ages and especially beneficial for older adults. It can help prevent injury, improve immunity deficiencies and ease psychological stress.