In China, it is believed that tai chi can delay aging and prolong life, increase flexibility and strengthen muscles and tendons, and aid in the treatment of heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, digestive disorders, skin diseases, depression, cancer, and many other illnesses. Unfortunately, there hasn't been a good deal of scientific evidence to support all of these claims. In a special study of tai chi called a meta-analysis, where many studies on one subject are reviewed, the author concludes that although there is some evidence to support the positive effects of tai chi on health, fitness, and balance and falling, most of the studies are limited by small numbers of subjects and wide variation in the type and duration of tai chi used. With that said, here are some of the documented benefits.
Balance and falling
Most of the research on tai chi has been done in older individuals in the area of balance and fall prevention. This area of research is important because fall-related injuries are the leading cause of death from injury and disabilities among older adults. The most serious fall injury is hip fracture; one-half of all older adults hospitalized for hip fracture never regain their former level of function. Because tai chi movements are slow and deliberate with shifts of body weight from one leg to the other in coordination with upper body movements (sometimes with one leg in the air), it challenges balance and one could speculate that it would help improve balance and reduce fall frequency. This has been shown in some research.
One study compared men age 65 and older who had more than 10 years of experience practicing tai chi and no involvement in any other regular sports and physical activity, with similar-aged men who had not practiced tai chi or any other physical activities (they were sedentary). It was found that the men who studied tai chi performed better on tests of balance, flexibility, and cardiovascular function. In another study involving 22 men and women aged 22 to 76 years with mild balance disorders, it was found that eight weeks of tai chi training significantly improved function on a standard balance test (called the Romberg test).
Fear of falling and improvement in self-confidence
In an interesting twist on studies of falling, researchers found that the frequency of fear of falling was reduced from 56% to 31% in a large group of adults 70 years and older who practiced tai chi regularly. Confidence about not falling, and self-confidence in general, may be an unintended benefit of tai chi but one that is certainly worth pursuing. In a similar tai chi study of older adults, 54% of the subjects who practiced tai chi attributed their improved sense of confidence to improved balance. The authors concluded that "when mental as well as physical control is perceived to be enhanced, with a generalized sense of improvement in overall well-being, older persons' motivation to continue exercising also increases."
Strength and endurance
A recent study of adults in their 60s and 70s who practiced tai chi three times a week for 12 weeks (60-minute classes) were given a battery of physical-fitness tests to measure balance, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility before and after the 12 weeks. Statistically significant improvements were observed in all balance, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility measures after six weeks, and they increased further after 12 weeks. The authors of the study concluded that tai chi is a potent intervention that improved balance, upper- and lower-body muscular strength and endurance, and upper- and lower-body flexibility in older adults.
Aerobic capacity diminishes as we age, but research on traditional forms of aerobic exercise show that it can improve with regular training. In another meta-analytic study, researchers looked at seven studies focusing on the effects of tai chi on aerobic capacity in adults (average age 55 years). The investigators found that individuals who practiced tai chi for one year (classical yang style with 108 postures) had higher aerobic capacity than sedentary individuals around the same age. The authors state that tai chi may be an additional form of aerobic exercise.
Walking speed decreases with age and research suggests that it may be associated with an increased risk of falling. In only one study, however, was it found that individuals who practiced tai chi walked significantly more steps than individuals who did not. Walking is clearly associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic illness, and so if tai chi can improve walking, then it's certainly worth giving it a try.
Fibromyalgia (FM) is one of the most common musculoskeletal disorders and is associated with high levels of impaired health and painful symptoms that frequently flair up without relief. The cause of FM is unknown, and there is no known cure. In a study of 39 subjects with FM who practiced tai chi twice weekly for six weeks (one-hour classes), it was found that FM symptoms and health-related quality of life improved significantly after the study. This should be good news for individuals who suffer from this disorder.
The demands of living are stressful for adults of all ages. Although one can't point to studies showing a reduction in stress from practicing tai chi (although in one study subjects who practiced tai chi did report that mental control was one of the benefits), the breathing, movement, and mental concentration required of individuals who practice tai chi may be just the distraction you need from your hectic lifestyle. The mind-body connection is one that deserves attention, as it has been reported that breathing coordinated with body movement and eye-hand coordination promote calmness. I know that when I practice yoga or tai chi, the inner sense of peace and calm is indisputable, and so I suggest that you give tai chi a chance if you're looking for a creative and physically active way to reduce how you mentally and physically respond to stress.
Some more reasons to practice tai chi:
Movements are low-impact and gentle and put minimal stress on your muscles and joints.
The risk of injury is very low.
You can do it anywhere, anytime.
It requires very little space (no excuses apartment dwellers!) and no special clothing or equipment.
You do it at your own pace.
It can be done in groups or by yourself (find a tai chi instructor to come to your workplace at lunch hour!).
There are lots of movements to keep you interested, and as you become more accomplished you can add those to your routine.