8 Health Benefits of Tai Chi
By Ellen Albertson, PhD, RDN, NBC-HWC
Tai chi is a gentle, martial arts practice that can transform and energize the body and mind. A natural solution for health issues, it has numerous benefits, including elevating mood, reducing stress, increasing strength and stamina, and addressing chronic conditions such as heart disease, insomnia, joint pain and high blood pressure. Tai chi works by balancing the opposing, yet complementary energies of yin (feminine) and yang (masculine), which improves the flow of qi (life force energy) and overall vitality.
The History of Tai Chi
While its exact origins are unknown, Tai chi’s invention is often credited to either 12th century Taoist Zhang Sanfeng or 17th century Ming Dynasty martial arts master Chen Wangting. The term tai chi is short for “t’ai chi ch'üan,” meaning “grand or supreme ultimate” and “fist”.
Today millions worldwide practice tai chi. The practice consists of a series of choreographed flowing forms—mindful movements named for animal actions—that make-up an entire sequence. While the movements are as graceful as a waltz, when performed quickly they can be a form of self-defense or combat.
Benefits of Tai Chi
A growing body of research has investigated how Tai chi, classified under Traditional Chinese or Alternative Medicine, can treat and improve quality of life in those with a wide array of conditions across numerous populations. Studies have been conducted with children, adults and the elderly, as well as people with Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, back pain, cardiovascular disease and HIV/AIDS. While more research is needed, the benefits of tai chi appear to be associated with enhanced mental and physical health, sleep and reduced stress. These benefits include:
1. Mood elevator
Reducing stress and anxiety is one of the main reasons my clients start and stick with tai chi. In today’s frenzied world, the moving meditation provides an opportunity to slow down, take it easier, and use the body to relax and clear the mind. Herbs like St. John’s wort, supplements like SAMe, and aromatherapy essential oils like lavender may also help.
2. Headache relief
According to the National Headache Foundation, over 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches. A UCLA, randomized controlled study looking at the impact of tai chi on adults with tension-type headaches (TTH) found that participants enrolled in a 15-week tai chi program experienced a statistically significant decrease in the number of headaches. Improvements in energy, social functioning, emotional well-being and mental health were also observed.
3. Balance and stability
Some of the most impressive research on tai chi has focused on enhancing balance and preventing falls, especially in the elderly. Several studies have shown significant improvements in balance, especially in participants who were sedentary or at risk for falls. Tai chi has also been shown to increase strength and flexibility, both of which can help prevent to falls.
4. Bone density
Concerned about bone health? Keep taking calcium, but consider taking up tai chi as well. Even though practicing involves little weight-bearing exercise and no resistance, several randomized controlled trials in post-menopausal women found tai chi reduced bone loss and fractures.
5. Blood pressure
Several studies have found that practicing tai chi significantly lowers blood pressure. Research published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that practicing tai chi for 12 weeks decreased blood pressure and improved both lipid profile and anxiety status. There are numerous ways to reduce your blood pressure from eating a healthier diet and losing weight to taking supplements including fiber, minerals (magnesium, calcium, and potassium), omega 3 fatty acids, and products that increase nitric oxide or expand blood vessels (cocoa, garlic, coenzyme Q10, and L-arginine).
6. Heart health
Tai chi has also been found to lower heart rate and increase heart rate variability (the time interval between heartbeats that can measure how well one tolerates stress). Tai chi, which is a form of aerobic exercise, may also improve your VO2 max—a measure linked to overall fitness.
Tai chi can help reverse changes in physical function that naturally decline with age. It has been shown to improve strength, fitness and overall capacity for daily living.
Tai chi may offer some relief for osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease causing stiffness, pain and mild inflammation. One study published in Arthritis and Rheumatism found that compared to controls, subjects with knee osteoarthritis who did tai chi twice a week had less pain and improved physical function. Supplements including boswellia (an anti-inflammatory herb), turmeric and capsaicin may also offer relief.
Not only is tai chi an effective therapeutic tool that is increasingly used in integrative medicine, it is enjoyable and purported as safe. The only thing one needs to succeed is to start and continue to practice.