Is the upcoming New Year the time you take up healthy regular exercise? Or are you looking for a health practice to keep you stress-free and comfortable during the holidays? Tai Chi is an option to consider.
Tai Chi is a gentle form of exercise that can be done in groups or individually, sitting or standing, indoors or outside, with a mind-body focus, or as a simple set of movements. Based on ancient Chinese martial arts, it is easy to learn but offers challenges for advanced practitioners.
Here are the five top health benefits supported by current research.
Tai Chi is known for helping with balance. One-quarter of Americans over age 65 will take a tumble in any given year, and a fall can be the beginning of the end of independence. A systematic review of research on more than 3,800 people found that Tai Chi is effective in preventing falls in older adults.
But balance is important for all of us, at any age. Harvard Medical School claims that Tai Chi is the best exercise for balance overall. One reason is the focus on proprioception, your body’s awareness of its place in the world. Tai Chi’s slow, deliberate movements increase awareness of the placement of the feet and other parts of the body. It also increases leg and core strength, reflexes, and flexibility, all of which contribute to strong balance.
2. Heart health
When we think of aerobic activity or cardiovascular exercise, we usually think of activities like walking, running, swimming, or biking. Tai Chi may seem too slow-paced to count for heart-healthy exercise. In fact, it is considered a low to moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise.
For people who find walking too challenging, Tai Chi can be a great way to start exercising regularly. While every minute counts, the ideal amount of time for cardio training is 150 minutes a week — 30 minutes on weekdays or about 20 minutes if you exercise seven days a week. Studies show that Tai Chi can be an appealing option for people who have not been exercising regularly, and people who perform these exercises regularly over time show the same kind of health effects as those who take up walking.
3. Stress relief
Tai Chi is sometimes described as a form of meditation. The movements involve intentional breathing in unison with hand motions and shifting of body weight. This can be an easier way to meditate for people who find sitting quietly to be difficult.
The movements center on a steady flow of movement, rather than starting and stopping motion. This encourages focus as well as simply keeping you moving.
Studies have found that Tai Chi practice reduces anxiety and depression.
4. Weight control
Studies show that Tai Chi offers the same reduction in waist size as more vigorous workouts like aerobics. In controlled studies, people who did Tai Chi saw the same kinds of weight loss as those who did conventional aerobics — while those who did not exercise did not see these results.
Tai Chi also relaxes users and encourages better sleep habits. It can even help you develop better eating habits by helping to reduce stress.
5. Better sleep
While a variety of studies have suggested that Tai Chi shows significant benefits over time, including lower blood pressure, better cognitive functioning, and pain reduction, one of the most common improvements for those who try out Tai Chi is better sleep hygiene.
A review of studies found that both healthy people and people with chronic diseases saw improvements in their sleep quality over time. Stress reduction and regular exercise are usually effective at improving sleep. Since the importance to health of good sleep habits has recently been supported by research, this may be of particular value right now.
How to get started with Tai Chi
YouTube, local classes, and books on Tai Chi instruction are all readily available. Tai Chi is very low impact and very safe, so you can jump right in and try it out.
If you have been sedentary for a while, you might want to begin with 10-minute sessions and work your way up to the 150 minutes per week experts recommend.
The most important safety concern is simply making sure that you have an open space to work in so you don’t trip over any obstacles. Choose comfortable clothing and don’t push yourself too hard.
As always, discuss any questions or concerns with your doctor.