The low-intensity movements of this ancient practice improve balance, reduce stress, boost brain power — and so much more. Here’s how to get started.
If you’ve ever seen people perform the flowing postures and gentle movements of tai chi, you may have wondered what it’s all about. Mesmerizing to watch, tai chi is a form traditional Chinese medicine designed to energize and balance your body’s energy, or qi (pronounced “chee”).
When your qi is balanced, your body is better able to function at its best, says Cathy Ciolek, D.P.T., a doctor of physical therapy who is the president of Living Well with Dementia, a geriatric physical therapy center in Wilmington, Delaware.
Indeed, research suggest that tai chi has a host of health benefits, including helping improve heart health and immune function, lowering your risk for falls, and relieving pain. Here are six reasons to consider adding it into your workout routine — plus, a few tai chi sequences to try!
Remember to check with your health care provider before beginning any new exercise program.
1. Tai Chi Reduces Risk of Falls
Every second, an older adult over the age of 65 takes a fall in the United States. That makes taking a tumble the leading cause of injury and injury death in this age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2017 review of 10 studies published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that practicing tai chi can slash that risk by around half. In fact, this ancient form of martial arts appeared more effective than other approaches such as physical therapy, balance training, resistance exercises, stretching, or yoga.
“Tai chi improves balance and also teaches body awareness, so you intuitively know where you are in space so that you can shift your weight automatically to help prevent a fall,” explains Ciolek.
Press play to try a tai chi for better balance sequence:
2. Tai Chi Improves Lower Back Pain
Almost half of all older adults experience chronic lower back pain, reports the CDC. Groups like the American College of Physicians now recommend tai chi as an effective non-drug offense. A 2019 review published in the journal Medicine also found that tai chi, either used alone or in conjunction with physical therapy, was effective in reducing lower back pain and improving quality of life.
“Tai chi strengthens core muscles that support your lower back and improves balance and flexibility,” points out Dianne Bailey, C.S.C.S., a certified tai chi instructor in Denver and author of Open the Door to Tai Chi. It also makes you more aware of your posture, she adds, noting that poor posture is a common cause of back pain.
3. Tai Chi Helps Your Heart
“People don’t think of tai chi as exercise, but it really is,” says Bailey. Its graceful, gentle movements will get your heart rate up while also relaxing your mind, which is one reason why it’s often known as meditation in motion, she explains.
A 2019 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine found that people who practiced tai chi for 3 months significantly decreased their blood pressure, compared to those who didn’t. Another 2016 review published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that tai chi reduced high blood pressure and high cholesterol in people with cardiovascular disease.
“I’ve found that my patients with heart disease really embrace tai chi because they’re afraid to do more intense exercise, especially if they’re recovering from a heart attack or stroke,” explains Bailey. “It’s a gentle way to get your body moving again.”
Press play to try tai chi inspired movements for beginners:
4. Tai Chi Boosts Brain Power
Older adults who practiced tai chi for 12 weeks had a better ability to multitask than those who didn’t practice it, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. They also had more activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain where higher-level thinking occurs.
“Any form of cardiovascular exercise improves cognition, because it improves oxygen supply to the brain,” explains Ciolek. “It also reduces stress, which can help people slow down and focus better.”
5. Tai Chi Helps Relieve Depression and Anxiety
A study of 112 older adults with major depression found that a weekly tai chi class paired with an anti-depressant improved symptoms more than the anti-depressant paired with a weekly health-education class. They also reported better quality of life, better memory and cognition, and more overall energy.
“Tai chi has a strong meditative component: you work on focused breathing, which reduces stress and relaxes your overexcited nervous system so you can concentrate your energy on the here and now,” says Ciolek. “It also gives your body a chance to emotionally reset.”
6. Tai Chi Enhances Your Immune System
A 2020 review published in the journal Medicines found that tai chi had a significant small effect of increasing levels of immune cells. Another older UCLA study found that older adults between the ages of 59 and 86 who practiced tai chi three times a week for 16 weeks mounted a stronger immune response when they were given the shingles vaccine, compared to a control group.
Get Started with SilverSneakers EnerChi
Think you want to give tai chi a shot? Bailey recommends that you try an in-person class: this way, the instructor is right there to help you, and you get the benefits of socially interacting with others.
Our SilverSneakers EnerChi class is a great introduction to tai chi — and the sessions are appropriate for all fitness levels. You’ll perform modified tai chi movements in a slow, flowing sequence. It’s offered both in-person at participating SilverSneakers fitness locations (review the gym’s schedule for exact times), or online with SilverSneakers LIVE. See the latest SilverSneakers LIVE schedule and RSVP for classes here.
The good news is you can do tai chi as often as you want. Unlike some other activities like weightlifting, your body doesn’t need a day off to recover. And the more you do, the quicker you’ll reap its benefits.
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