Movement as Medicine: The Power of Tai Chi

Movement as Medicine: The Power of Tai Chi

Tai chi, the ancient Chinese practice that combines movement and meditation, is designed to help you achieve balance, both physically and emotionally, and uses a series of forms (positions) and motions to accomplish that. The end result strengthens everything from joint, muscle and heart health to improved cognition and sleep quality. Whether you are trying to maintain your flexibility and mental agility as you age, restore your health after diagnosis with a disease, or improve function post-surgery, tai chi is for you.

The gentle power of tai chi
Research shows that tai chi positively affects many bodily systems, functions and organs.

  • One study in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that for folks with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease, tai chi provides “moderate to large beneficial effects on motor symptoms, postural instability and functional mobility.”
  • Other studies illustrate how much it helps to restore movement, balance and confidence for someone recovering from a stroke.
  • According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, “a 2007 study on the immune response to varicella-zoster virus (chickenpox) suggested that tai chi may enhance the immune system in older adults.” (But keep your immunizations up to date anyway!)
  • Tai chi protects against falls. A 2013 Cochrane review examined fall prevention interventions for older folks and found that tai chi significantly reduced the risk of falling.
  • At Dr. Mike’s Wellness Center at the Cleveland Clinic, tai chi is offered for wellness and disease management since it strengthens muscles, keep joints moving, improves arterial flexibility and lowers blood pressure. It also improves blood sugar control, eases chronic pain and activates the parasympathetic nervous system thanks to the long, deep breathing it requires.
  • Research also shows that tai chi is beneficial if you have chronic pulmonary disease, cancer or osteoarthritis.

The mental benefits of tai chi
In addition to its far-reaching physical benefits, tai chi has been shown to reduce stress, ease depression and improve cognition.

  • For those with Alzheimer’s, it’s brain protective: a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that participants who did tai chi saw their brain volume increase in size while they did better on cognitive function tests. The group that didn’t do tai chi showed brain shrinkage over that same period.
  • A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis of 20 studies (11 of which were randomized controlled trials) involving 2,553 participants aged 60 and older, with and without cognitive impairment, found beneficial effects in healthy adults who practiced tai chi, compared with nonintervention and exercise controls.
  • A 2015 systematic review of nine prospective studies (four randomized controlled trials and five non-randomized controlled trials) including 632 healthy adults concluded that, compared with usual physical activities, tai chi showed beneficial effects on cognitive ability in healthy adults.

Finding the practice that works for you
The Tai Chi for Health Institute points out that, since tai chi was developed around 3,000 years ago, several major styles developed. Each style shares similar essential principles, but contain different features and characteristics. Some examples:

  • Chen style tai chi is the original style; it alternates slow-motion movements with short, fast, explosive ones; it is very hard to find any practitioners these days.
  • Yang style tai chi is the most popular and widely practiced; in England and America, at least 20 main variations exist.
  • Wu style tai chi is a more meditative, quiet practice, with very strong internal benefits to joints, and deep internal stretches. The Yang and Wu, with all their variations, are done by 80 percent or more of all tai chi practitioners.
  • Hao style tai chi uses postures and actions that are simple, compact and brisk.
  • Sun style tai chi is suitable for people with arthritis.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

Finding Your Place on the Mat
Finding Your Place on the Mat
You don't have to jump up and down like you're on a pogo stick to get fit. There are kinder, gentler ways to exercise, and these methods hail from the...
Read More
What should I know before I try kung fu?
Sifu Karl  RomainSifu Karl Romain
Before committing to a Kung Fu regimen, you should take a free class and make sure the instructor an...
More Answers
What exactly is mind-body exercise?
National Academy of Sports MedicineNational Academy of Sports Medicine
This is a physical activity or exercise that is performed with an added internal awareness or fo...
More Answers
Beth Oliver - Yoga Practice Moves - ALL 8 Weeks
Beth Oliver - Yoga Practice Moves - ALL 8 Weeks