Tai chi, which consists of slow, balanced, low-impact movements, is not only good for your body, it's good for your brain, new research shows.
Tai chi originated in China centuries ago as one of the martial arts; it was an outgrowth of the ancient Taoist philosophy, which values tranquility and reflection. The martial side is no longer central to most practitioners. Instead, tai chi combines elements of a workout, meditation, and dance. It involves dozens of postures and gestures, performed in sequences known as "sets" or "forms," derived from animal movements. It's a bit like slow-motion karate or "moving meditation."
To do the sets correctly, you must learn controlled breathing, concentration, how to shift your body weight, and how to relax your muscles. Great claims are made for the benefits of tai chi--that it provides an "inner massage for your organs," for instance, and that it benefits your heart as much as aerobic exercise. This is not totally farfetched. Studies have long shown that tai chi offers physical and mental benefits for young and old, healthy and less so. It is especially beneficial and safe for older people, even the very old. It's a good complement to aerobic exercise and weight training.
The new study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, included 120 healthy older people in China. Those who practiced tai chi three times a week for 40 weeks showed increases in brain volume, as seen on MRI, as well as improvements on several tests of memory and learning, compared to those not doing the exercise who had normal age-related brain shrinkage. Previous research has shown that aerobic activity is good for the brain, but this study suggests that a more gentle form of exercise is also beneficial.
What else tai chi is good for:
- Balance, coordination, and reduction in falls. Guidelines about fall prevention in older people from the American Geriatrics Society recommend tai chi because it targets strength, gait, and balance. Research has shown that tai chi can improve balance and coordination, as well as reduce the risk of falls.
- Arthritis relief. In a study from Tufts University, people over 65 with knee osteoarthritis who took tai chi classes twice weekly for 12 weeks experienced less pain and had improved physical function, compared to a group that did stretching and received counseling.
- Physical therapy and rehabilitation. As a highly adaptable adjunct to other kinds of physical therapy, tai chi can aid in recovery from injuries and after a heart attack or surgery. The exercises take your joints through their full range of motion, and can thus restore lost flexibility. Physical therapists can individualize tai chi programs for various problems.
- Relaxation and sleep. Tai chi promotes relaxation and can relieve tension and anxiety. In a UCLA study, older people with moderate sleep complaints who took up tai chi reported better sleep and daytime functioning after 25 weeks.
- Overall fitness. Studies have shown that older people who start doing tai chi can improve their ability to walk, lift weights, run, and do daily activities.
- Diabetes control. A study from the University of Florida focused on people with type 2 diabetes who took tai chi classes (twice a week, with three days of home practice a week) for six months. Those who adhered to the program lowered their blood sugar and also managed the disease better than those who did not stick with it. Tai chi's effect on diabetes control is similar to that of aerobic exercise, the researchers concluded.