Why tai chi is particularly good for the brain
AN ANCIENT CHINESE EXERCISE, TAI CHI HAS BEEN CREDITED WITH MANY HEALTH BENEFITS AND IS PARTICULARLY CALMING ON THE BRAIN. JULIA BRAYBROOK EXPLAINS WHY
Exercise has long been praised for its benefits for mental health, though for many of us smashing out a full-on workout can be a challenge, especially if you’re not at your fittest, find it hard to keep up as you age, or if you’ve been struggling with your mental health already. Whatever the situation, if you’re more inclined to gentler workouts then tai chi can see you reaping the rewards of exercise on the brain.
Tai chi is a Chinese martial art that uses slow, meditative exercises that are designed for relaxation, balance and health. The practice is often referred to as a ‘moving meditation’ as the slow, graceful movements can be used as a means to provide a relaxed focus for the mind – particularly beneficial for those suffering depression or anxiety.
One study published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine saw researchers from
Tufts Medical Centre in the US review more than 40 studies on the practice, which found that practising tai chi was associated with reduced stress, anxiety, depression and mood disturbances, and also increased the selfesteem of participants.
This may be partly down to the workout’s low-intensity mind-set. Tai chi classes often work with the principle of doing movements to 70 per cent of your ability, so you shouldn’t feel like you’re creating additional tension in your body. The argument, practitioners say, is that striving to give 100 per cent while working out produces stress, as straining or going beyond your capacity drains your energy reserves. This principle does assume that you’re in good health, but those who are experiencing stress or discomfort at a physical, emotional or mental level are encouraged to adjust the rule to suit them. For instance, if you’re healing from a physical injury, you may only work at 50 per cent of your capacity for a few months, then move to 60 per cent, and then 70 per cent as your body heals.
This can also make it a good practice for those being treated for depression, and augmenting antidepressants with tai chi has been found to be effective. In a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 122 adults aged 60 or older with major depression who had been taking the antidepressant escitalopram for six weeks were assigned to a further 10 weeks of either tai chi or health education. After taking twohour classes each week, those in the tai chi group were more likely to have reduced symptoms and to experience remission than those who just had health education. They also performed better on cognitive tests and their levels of the inflammatory C-reactive protein had fallen more than those in the control group. Study lead author Helen Lavretsky, says that there is one downside to tai chi; like all physical exercise, it’s “not easy for everybody” – she says people can be surprised how much of
Originally developed as a fighting art, the origins of tai chi date back more than 400 years, some say even up to 1500 years. A 15th century Taoist monk named Zhang San Feng is usually credited as its
Tai chi is a gentle Chinese martial art
a sweat you can work up even when the exercises look gentle. Dr Peter Wayne, research director of the Osher Centre for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, agrees: “The slowness that you see from the outside can be deceptive.” Depending on the intensity at which you train, as an aerobic workout, it’s roughly equivalent to a brisk walk.
Tai chi also involves a lot of bending, stretching and moving, so make sure you’re wearing loose, comfortable clothes that allow you to move freely and stay cool. Some instructors prefer participants to be barefoot, while others recommend flat-soled, flexible shoes.
Classes will generally begin with loosening exercises to open up the joints and relax tight muscles, before moving on to gentle stretching exercises and working on ‘forms’. Those forms are made up of a series of movements – once you’ve learned enough movements you’ve learned a tai chi ‘form’ or ‘set’. Like all workouts, there are several styles – Yang, Wu and Chen – and each has their own form. If it’s your first time doing tai chi, you’ll find learning short forms the easiest, as they’re between 13 and 40 moves long and take between three and 20 minutes to complete.
It can be a little intimidating as moves can be very technical and co-ordinated, but you’re encouraged to learn at your own pace – don’t worry if you’re feeling frustrated or like you’re not ‘getting’ the moves. Take things slow, and spend around 10 minutes a day learning a few postures rather than rushing a routine – and don’t forget to warm up first.
Anyone of any age or fitness level can try tai chi. For older adults especially, tai chi comes with many benefits. A review in 2009 of tai chi and qigong – another Chinese practice similar to tai chi – analysed 36 clinical trials with almost 4000 participants and found that following the practices significantly improved depression and anxiety among older adults. In fact, the exercise is considered so beneficial for older adults, it’s recommended as a first-line treatment for mild depression, in part because it has been shown to improve balance and reduce falls. The physical components targeted by tai chi – leg strength, flexibility, range of motion, and reflexes – are all needed to stay upright and also tend to decline with age. A 2017 review published in the British Medical Journal found that the practice was associated with a 20 per cent lower risk of falling at least once and a 31 per cent drop in the number of falls experienced by older adults, while a 2012 review in The New England
Journal of Medicine found that tai chi was particularly effective for improving balance in those with Parkinson’s disease.
‘The slowness that you see from the outside can be deceptive’
There are likely to be tai chi classes running in your area. Head to taoist.org/nz to find an instructor. You can also find videos on Youtube. To get a flavour, try the exercises in the box (right) at home.