Tai chi – meditation and medication in motion

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Originated in China, Tai chi chuan (its full name) was a martial art and a form of the ancient Taoist philosophy, which values tranquility and reflection.  Today, the martial arts side of tai chi is no longer the central focus.  Instead tai chi spotlights the elements of a workout, dance and meditation. 

Many people associate tai chi as a form of meditation but it was Harvard Medical School that coined the term “medication in motion” which more aptly describes what this form of exercise can do.  Growing evidence is showing the value of tai chi in treating or preventing many health problems.  And the best thing about it is a person does not have to be in great physical condition or the best of health as it is easily adapted for anyone, from someone very fit to people confined to wheelchairs or recovering from surgery.

What are the basic moves of tai chi?

Tai chi involves dozens of postures and gestures, performed in sequences known as “sets” or “forms” derived from animal movements.  Think of it sort of like slow-motion karate or swimming in air.  For the sets to be done correctly, it is important to learn controlled breathing, concentration, how to shift your body weight and how to relax your muscles.

Different from other types of exercise, tai chi uses movements that are usually circular and never forced, keeping the muscles relaxed instead of tense and with the joints never fully extended or bent.  

Health benefits of tai chi

One of the reasons for tai chi’s popularity around the world is the tremendous health claims made on its behalf.  There is a growing body of evidence from research that has built a compelling case for tai chi to be used for the prevention and rehabilitation of many health conditions.  From helping to ease depression, reduce falls in the elderly, improve coordination and balance to easing chronic pain and arthritis, this form of movement appears to do it all.

One claim has described tai chi as an “inner massage for your organs” along with benefits to the heart as much as aerobic exercise.  Studies have shown that tai chi does offer physical and mental benefits for young and old, healthy and less so.  Elderly people are especially likely to benefit from tai chi as it’s a good complement to aerobic exercise and weight training.

One of the best things about tai chi making it a favorite among people less fit, is that although it is slow and gentle without leaving you breathless, it still address the key components of fitness – muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and to a lesser degree, aerobic conditioning. 

Here is how tai chi can benefit anyone who practices it regularly:

· Muscle strength – Tai chi can improve lower-body strength and upper-body strength and can be comparable to resistance training and brisk walking.

· Balance – The movements of tai chi improve balance which helps reduce falls.  As a person ages, the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space – known as proprioception – declines.  Tai chi helps train this sense.  Many elderly people have a fear of falling which with the help of practicing tai chi, this fear can be reduced.  Since muscle strength and flexibility are improved with tai chi, this also helps make it easier to recover if one does fall.

· Flexibility – Tai chi can boost upper and lower body flexibility as well as strength.

· Aerobic conditioning – Depending on the speed and size of movements, tai chi can provide some aerobic benefits. 

· Arthritis relief – A 2013 meta-analysis looking at seven randomized controlled trials involving 348 patients with osteoarthritis found tai chi to be beneficial for improving arthritic symptoms and physical function and is recommended to be included in rehabilitation programs. The study participants showed improvement with less pain and improved physical functioning.   

· Relaxation and sleep – Tai chi promotes relaxation and can relieve tension and anxiety.  In a 2008 UCLA study, older people with moderate sleep complaints who took up tai chi reported better sleep and daytime functioning (less drowsiness) after 25 weeks. Another more recent UCLA study found that tai chi showed significant improvements in sleep quality and the health of insomniac breast cancer survivors who practiced it.  There were further benefits from tai chi in the form of improvements in depression and fatigue.

· Diabetes control – A 2008 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine focused on people with type 2 diabetes who took tai chi classes for twelve weeks.  Those who adhered to the program significantly lowered their blood sugar and also managed the disease better than those who did not stick with it.  The researchers with the study believe that tai chi’s effect on diabetes control is similar to that of aerobic exercise.

· Overall fitness – Studies have shown that older people who start tai chi can improve their ability to walk, lift weights, run and do daily activities.

Getting started

If tai chi is completely new to you, it might best to observe a class once and then talk to the instructor on any concerns you may have.  Notice that the participants wear comfortable, loose fitting clothing that don’t restrict range of motion and can be practice barefoot, or in lightweight, comfortable, and flexible shoes. 

Tai chi is very safe and there is no equipment required making it easy to get started.  Check with your doctor if you have a limiting physical disability or take any medications that make you dizzy or light-headed.