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The Health Benefits of Tai Chi

Surrounded by the mystery of an ancient civilisation, one martial art still appeals to those seeking an opportunity to earn discipline, grace, balance and above all, inner peace.

Tai Chi serves countless people globally today, so here we take a look at the research dedicated to explaining the potential benefits, while appreciating the longevity behind one of humanity’s oldest cultures.

Originally taught as self-defence, the martial art developed towards focusing on enhancing individual physical and mental strength. Tai Chi comprises of low impact exercises that use slow movements, breathing techniques and meditation to improve the flow of energy around the body. Control of this energy is believed to profess a wealth of health benefits.

When learning Tai Chi, students are often taught techniques and exercises that build on foundational strength. This builds up the ability to position oneself to achieve proper weight distribution, improving coordination, balance, and increasing flexibility. The other component students are initially taught is the importance of mental health, and how to use Tai Chi to relax and loosen the body to reduce stress.

The most unique aspect of Tai Chi is the principle of Qi (or Chi), which represents ‘life energy’, or ‘life flow’. The exercises and forms taught in Tai Chi are focused on unlocking and encouraging the flow of Qi around the body. It is these precise and deliberate movements that are thought to improve circulation around the body, rebalancing Qi and allowing the person to stay in control. Qigong is another component of Tai Chi, taught along side at the same time but involving smaller movements and breathing exercises that need to be used during practice.

Improvements to Physical Health

The stretches used in the exercise movements relieve high blood pressure, back pain, and can reduce the severity of insomnia and even improve breathing. The regular use of forms also aid the exchange of gases in the lungs, helps the digestive system, and improves core strength.

Through the various forms and exercises learned, Tai Chi improves overall balance and coordination. Researchers from Chang-Gung University in Taiwan took an interest in this, searching out how it could specifically help reduce the fear of falling for elderly adults on a cognitive-behavioural level. The study found that Tai Chi worked as a method to overcome fear of falling, and combated the resulting social isolation and decreased quality of life.

People recently out of surgery or recovering from cancer operations are encouraged to start practising Tai Chi to recover muscle control and to build up stamina and strength. As the majority of postoperative patients are required not to involve themselves in strenuous activity, Tai Chi suits particularly well due to its low impact movements. Enthusiasts of the art are also reporting its effectiveness in lessening arthritic pain, and studies are currently being carried out to determine whether there is any physiological evidence to support this.

There are indications that Tai Chi can also be an effective exercise therapy to combat COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). The 2012 study by the University of Sydney followed 42 COPD sufferers, asking half to take medication without exercising, and the other half to take Tai Chi lessons twice a week and continue practising at home. Ability to exercise was then measured through a walking test, and results found the participants who practiced Tai Chi were able to walk a significantly further distance than those only on medication. A Chronic Respiratory Disease Questionnaire was completed by both groups, with responses showing the Tai Chi group reporting a higher quality of life.

A 2007 study by NCCAM (National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) found that Tai Chi practitioners had a boosted immunity to varicella-zoster, a virus that causes shingles.

The benefits of Tai Chi practice for individuals suffering from tension headaches was investigated by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles, who found significant improvements in a Tai Chi group over a wait-list control group. Those required to practice Tai Chi  for 15 weeks reported improvements not only to headache status, pain and energy/fatigue, but also to mental health through better social functioning and more secure emotional well-being.

Improvements to Mental Health

Regular Tai Chi exercise increases a sense of calmness and awareness, and advocates firmly believe in its capacity to eliminate stress. The fluid movements and breathing techniques are thought to release practitioners from damage to the body caused by poor posture, difficult working conditions and stress. Studies from the University of Colorado revealed in the International Journal of Sports Medicine that regular and moderate physical activity prevents the detrimental immunological effects of stress. As Tai Chi comprises mostly of regular and moderate physical activity, it stands as a popular method to maintain the immune system and promote relaxation.

The belief that the mind and body need to remain in balance with each other is also significant, and researchers at Boston’s Tufts Medical Center set out to systematically review the effects of Tai Chi on psychological well-being. After forty studies involving over three thousand participants ranging between 11-85 years old, results showed the benefits of Tai Chi to relieve stress, improve well-being, reduce depression and even help with anxiety.

Other Advantages

Tai Chi can be performed in limited space and requires no equipment, so the ease of access is a big advantage when picking up the art. As the forms and movements are relatively gentle, it remains suitable for almost all ages; and physical condition should not be a limiting factor.

Another unique aspect to Tai Chi is how communal it can be, in that sessions are often shared with small or large groups of people. The camaraderie built in these group exercise sessions may also prove to be beneficial in coping with stress, depression and anxiety without the need for pharmaceutical intervention.

Research may have shown the benefits of this ancient art, but studies will continue on to compare it against other forms of moderate exercise, just as enthusiasts continue to share their art form as a way to keep people relaxed, healthy and well balanced.