Research Demonstrates the benefits of Practicing Tai Chi

This article by Rebecca Gao summarizes 45 years of research on the benefits of tai chi.
It was published in the Globe and Mail, May 27th, 2024, in the Life section.  

Why you should take up tai chi

It may look gentle, but tai chi packs a punch. The seemingly leisurely and deliberate movements originated in ancient China as a martial art, which has since evolved into a health and rehabilitation activity. “A lot of people think that tai chi seems very chill and slow-moving and therefore doesn’t provide a lot of benefits,” says Teresa Liu-Ambrose, a professor at the University of British Columbia and a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Healthy Aging. “In reality, tai chi as an exercise is very functional.” The science backs this up: According to a paper out of the University of Ottawa, there have been more than 500 trials published over the last 45 years about the benefits of tai chi. Here are five reasons to pick up this slow-moving exercise.

It’s a functional strength exercise

It might not look like it, but tai chi helps strengthen your whole body. Liu-Ambrose says that tai chi is great for strengthening the lower body. Lower body strength is the main “type of strength that people lose as they age,” she explains. “A lot of older adults lose strength in their lower legs and then they struggle to get out of chairs.” Standing up from sitting isn’t the first thing you think about when you think about aging, but it’s a key indicator of your mobility levels. Plus, tai chi uses just your body strength and doesn’t require motions like jumping, so it’s a low-impact exercise for all skill levels.

To start doing tai chi, you need to get into a broad stance with slightly bent legs. This squat position then transitions into shifting weight from one limb to another. All of this is done while co-ordinating your movements, leading to stronger legs that are ready for more walking, standing and running.

It challenges (and improves) your balance

Balance is one of the most important skills that you can work on for your health. It deteriorates as you age, which puts you at risk for falls and injuries. Even for those who haven’t suffered a fall, the fear of falling is enough to keep people from exercising, leading to physical inactivity – which can lead to an increased risk in diseases related to a sedentary lifestyle. The slow shifting of weight from limb to limb integral to tai chi is great balance training. A study published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found that practising tai chi three times a week for 24 weeks led to a “statistically significant” decrease in loss of balance.

Plus, Liu-Ambrose says that following along with the leader and being able to move from stance to stance improves co-ordination, which fundamentally reduces risk of falling as you age.

It improves your flexibility

All that slow moving during tai chi is actually gradually keeping you limber. Slowly transitioning from stance to stance (often, without pausing in a pose like you would for yoga) keeps limbs mobile. Using just your body weight, tai chi asks you to flow through a number of stances while staying upright – which, combined with movement, is great for improving mobility. A 2023 systematic review published in Frontiers in Public Health found that tai chi can improve functional mobility and balance in older adults more than conventional exercises – and more efficiently, too.

It’s meditation in motion

Sometimes called meditation in motion, tai chi combines exercise with tenets of mindfulness, which leads to an overall boost in mental health. A major part of a tai chi session is the qigong, or breath work. This usually consists of gentle breathing exercises combined with movement, which relaxes the mind and warms up the body, loosening up muscles and joints for the workout to come.

When you practise tai chi, “you are really concentrating on the movements, connecting with your body, focusing on breathing,” says Liu-Ambrose. “These are the exact same techniques that are used to reduce anxiety and stress.”