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.
Research shows that tai chi positively affects many bodily systems, functions and organs:
One recent 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.”
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.
The newest research also shows it’s beneficial if you have chronic pulmonary disease, cancer or osteoarthritis.
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 disease, 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 and 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 nonrandomized controlled trials) including 632 healthy adults, concluded that compared to usual physical activities, tai chi showed beneficial effects on cognitive ability in healthy adults.
The Tai Chi for Health Institute points out that, since tai chi developed around 3,000 years ago, several major styles developed. Each style shares similar essential principles but contains 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.
The Wu style is very slow and smooth, externally, with very strong internal benefits to joints, deep internal stretches and is a more meditative, quiet practice. The Yang and Wu, with all their variations, are done by 80 percent or more of all tai chi practitioners.
Hao tai chi uses postures and actions that are simple, compact and brisk.
Sun, the latest style, is suitable for people with arthritis.
To find a practice near you, check your local hospital-based wellness program or log on to the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association website’s class locator on the home page at americantaichi.net.