The Easiest Exercise That Isn’t Walking

The Easiest Exercise That Isn’t Walking

Find about what tai chi is and all of the ways this gentle exercise can benefit your health.

When it comes to exercises that are easy on the joints and can be done anywhere—and are relaxing, to boot—tai chi often comes to mind. The traditional Chinese practice has been found to improve balance, help reduce pain and improve mental health. The practice can also improve the quality of life for those suffering from other conditions, such as heart failure, various cancers, stroke, fibromyalgia and chronic back pain.

Tai chi and other mind-body exercises may also provide some benefits for your brain. These practices, which involve a combination of movement, concentration and controlled breathing, and are linked to better brain health, according to a December 2018 meta-analysis published in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Researchers looked at 32 randomized control trials involving more than 3,600 older adults with and without cognitive impairment. They found that mind-body exercises, like tai chi and Pilates can help improve participants’ memory, word retrieval, cognitive flexibility and ability to process and understand information.     

Despite the health benefits, though, learning the practice can be time consuming, with some disciplines consisting of up to 108 different moves.

A newer variation of tai chi, called tai chi chih, is just as calming but much simpler to learn, making it an ideal activity for those looking for a non-vigorous yet strengthening form of exercise.

Michelle P. Carlino, E-RYT 500 YACEP and certified Tai Chi Chih instructor with Lourdes Health System, explains the origins of tai chi chih, the basics of the practice and the types of benefits people who perform it could see.

What is tai chi chih
Tai chi chih was developed in 1974 by Justin Stone, a practitioner and teacher of tai chi who sought to create an easier practice. Tai chi—originally rooted in martial arts—can be time consuming to learn, taking between 30 and 36 class hours to master the basic moves. According to Carlino, Stone wanted to create a smaller set of movements that retained many of the health benefits of tai chi.

Carlino’s own journey to tai chi chih mirrored that of Stone’s. “I have only learned the first 10 to 15 movements of tai chi, and it took me some time,” she says.

Tai chi chih is made up of 19 movements and one pose. The moves are not related to martial arts and are designed to be learned in about eight classes. However, Carlino notes that you can understand many of the movements in your first class.

“You'll repeat a movement, three, six, nine or 18 times—everything is in a multiple of three,” she says. “It's also called a moving meditation.”

The practice can be done anywhere, both indoors and outdoors, only requiring about 2 to 3 feet of space. It can be performed sitting or standing, making it an accessible form of exercise for people of various ages and abilities. The entire sequence of tai chi chih movements takes about 20 minutes to complete, but each movement can also be done on its own.

“If you don't have time to do the whole sequence, you can take five minutes in your day and just do one or two of the movements,” says Carlino.

Benefits of tai chi chih
So far there has been very little research on the benefits of tai chi chih specifically, but studies looking at tai chi—which can have many different styles and variations—have found that the practice can lead to reduced feelings of anxiety. A 2017 review of tai chi research found that tai chi could be safely performed by middle-aged and older people undergoing treatment for cancer, osteoarthritis, heart failure and COPD, and improved their physical performance. It also reduced pain and stiffness in those with osteoarthritis.

In her experience, Carlino has seen many benefits among her students, including less pain from arthritis and tendinitis, better sleep quality and a decrease in stress. The practice can be used to energize or calm, based on the movements you choose to do.

“The repetitive movement gives the mind a place to land, which becomes your focus, and that calms the brain,” Carlino says.

Anecdotally, students of the practice describe many physical and emotional benefits. Many hospitals are beginning to hold classes as an alternative therapy used in conjunction with traditional medical practices. Because the exercises are gentle and can be perform seated, it may be safe for many types of people.

Carlino also works with clients of all ages and physical abilities. She teaches the movements to young adults battling anxiety and depression, as well as senior citizens looking to improve balance and reduce falls.

“I work with people in wheelchairs,” Carlino says. “I do this practice with people who are blind and others who are brain injured. It's very adaptable for any person.”

How to get started
First, speak with your doctor before beginning any exercise program. If you’re interested in taking a class or learning more about the practice, a list of accredited instructors around the country is updated at Local hospitals, community centers and yoga studios may host classes as well.

While there are helpful videos on YouTube that may help you learn the process, Carlino says the best way to experience tai chi chih for the first time is to attend a class. Through in-person instruction, beginners can best learn the moves and get the most benefit out of the exercise.

“It's just a simple practice that can be learned very quickly and can improve your health on all levels,” Carlino says. “That's all you have to do: Just show up and you'll feel something in your first class.”

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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