Tai Chi – Modern Therapy? Ancient Chinese Secret? Or Both?

Don’t let the exotic name fool you. A fast-growing body of scientific evidence suggests that Tai Chi offers real health benefits as an adjunct therapy to standard medical treatments for many age-related health conditions.

  • A recent Harvard Medical School article[i] called Tai Chi “medication in motion” and suggested that Tai Chi’s “gentle form of exercise can help maintain strength, flexibility, and balance, and could be the perfect activity for the rest of your life.”
  • The University of Pittsburgh’s BRiTE (Brain Training and Exercise) Wellness Center program[ii], managed by Pitt’s Department of Neurology, incorporates Tai Chi classes as a way to stimulate the brain and body of individuals with known or suspected cognitive impairment, with the objective of improving overall health and wellness.
  • The Mayo Clinic[iii] recommends Tai Chi as a way to:
    • reduce stress and anxiety
    • increase energy and stamina
    • improve flexibility and balance
    • build muscle strength and definition

…and mentions that medical evidence also suggests that Tai Chi may help:

    • Enhance quality of sleep
    • Reduce joint pain
    • Improve the immune system
    • Help lower blood pressure
    • Reduce risk of falls in older adults

In short, Tai Chi might actually be the real “ancient Chinese secret” to health and longevity.

But what is it? Tai Chi is a low-impact, slow-motion, exercise.  It consists of a series of gentle continuous movements that flow into one another at an even pace and require the mind to focus. Deep, even breathing is combined with the movements. The continuous flow of relaxed movements exercises joints and muscles gently, and the required focus improves an awareness of one’s own body and what it is doing (“proprioception” – the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space[iv]).  While Tai Chi originated in China hundreds of years ago as a martial art, today it is mainly practiced for exercise and health benefits.

What is a class like? Most classes involve 2 or 3 parts:

  •  Warm-ups – slow individual movements to help loosen joints, warm up muscles, focus attention, and slow us down. Examples might be moving arms from side to side slowly, or gently shifting weight from one leg to another.
  • Forms – a series of movements performed together in a defined sequence. Remembering the sequence of movements helps to stimulate memory and cognitive abilities while your body receives gentle exercise.
  • Breathing exercises – short movements or standing position synchronized with deep breathing.

Do I need to buy into the philosophy? Nope, not a requirement. Once started, many people simply get curious about the history and origin of Tai Chi, but you do not need to buy into any particular philosophy to enjoy the benefits of Tai Chi. 

I’m out of shape – can I really do this? Tai chi is low impact and puts minimal stress on muscles and joints, making it generally safe for all ages and fitness levels.

OK, I’m sold – what do I do?

  • Observe a class – Most instructors don’t mind if you drop by and observe a class without participating to see what it’s like.
  • Check out the instructor – Talk to the instructor, ask for referrals from friends, make sure the person who will be teaching you is the “real deal” and has been doing this for a long time. Like anything else, you should only learn from someone you trust.
  • Take a class – Try out a class. Most instructors will let you take a class or two for free – if they don’t, look for another instructor.
  • Dress comfortably and relax – This is all about relaxation and gentle exercise, so make sure you are comfortably dressed.
  • Check with your doctor – If you have had recent surgery, or have a physical limitation that restricts your movement, you might want to check with your doctor before starting Tai Chi. Most likely, the doctor will be all for it. If the doctor approves then make sure you tell your Tai Chi instructor about your limitation so that he/she can modify any movements for you that would affect that part of your body.

[i] “The health benefits of tai chi”, Harvard Women’s Health Watch, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, published May, 2009 and updated August 20, 2019. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-health-benefits-of-tai-chi

[ii] For more information on the University of Pittsburgh’s BRiTE Wellness Center and its programs, see https://www.brite.pitt.edu/ BRiTE Tai Chi classes are taught by Sifu David Slaughter – see www.sifuslaughterscma.com

[iii] “Tai chi: A gentle way to fight stress”, Mayo Clinic Staff, Mayo Clinic, September 26, 2018.      https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/tai-chi/art-20045184

[iv] See Harvard Medical School article under endnote 1 above.