Tai chi is a non-competitive martial art known for its self-defense techniques and health benefits. As a form of exercise, it combines gentle physical exercise and stretching with mindfulness.
Research has produced mixed results but appears to show that tai chi can improve balance control, fitness, and flexibility, and might cut the risk of falls in older people.
Tai chi also appears to reduce pain and the symptoms of depression in some cases.
The martial art is an ancient Chinese tradition that has evolved over centuries. To its advocates, it has become a means of alleviating stress and anxiety, a form of “meditation in motion.” Its supporters claim that it promotes serenity and inner peace.
It is safe for people of all ages, as it does not put too much stress on the muscles and joints.
This article explores the documented evidence for the benefits of tai chi.
Various research suggests the benefits of tai chi might include improved balance, pain management, and cognitive function in people with and without chronic conditions.
Other possible benefits include improved sleep quality and an enhanced immune system.
Tai chi showed some potential benefits for helping prevent trips and falls in older adults across a range of studies.
A 2012 review looked at 159 randomized controlled trials of various types of intervention that were intended to prevent falls in older people.
The studies involved more than 79,193 people, and the authors concluded that tai chi could reduce the risk of falling.
A 2015 systematic review of seven trials involving 544 tai chi chuan practitioners concluded it helped improve balance control and flexibility.
A 2014 Cochrane review found that exercises, including Tai chi, might have reduced the fear of falling among older adults in a retirement community immediately after they did the workout. However, the review did not reach any conclusions about tai chi reducing the frequency of falls.
Another article notes that Tai Chi is a successful exercise intervention for factors related to falls in older people.
The evidence from these studies seems to suggest that tai chi might help support many aspects of balance and posture.
Several small studies suggest that tai chi can have a significant impact on the chronic pain experienced with specific conditions, such as osteoarthritis of the knee and fibromyalgia.
A 2013 meta-analysis of seven different trials seemed to demonstrate that a 12-week course of tai chi could improve the stiffness, and pain symptoms of knee osteoarthritis and improve physical function.
The authors of the review recommended further, larger-scale trials to support their conclusions. The studies they examined had flaws and potential biases.
A Cochrane review of 54 studies that reviewed 3,913 participants provided moderate-quality evidence that tai chi could help improve physical function in those with knee osteoarthritis. Tai chi formed the basis of only 5 of the studies, but the evidence that exercise helped provide short-term relief for knee osteoarthritis was strong.
Tai chi also seems to have some evidence supporting its use as a management tool for fibromyalgia.
A 2012 study of 101 people also suggested that combining tai chi with mindfulness training could improve both fibromyalgia symptoms and functional difficulties.
Chronic heart failure
Some practitioners of tai chi tout it as an effective management tool for people with chronic heart failure. The evidence available, however, does not support this conclusion, and any studies showing an improvement conclude that the findings were insignificant.
A 2015 systematic review of 20 studies showed tai chi as beneficial for multiple areas of cardiovascular health, such as blood pressure and heart rate, although the quality of the studies was low, and the researchers drew no definitive conclusions.
A Cochrane review of 13 small trials also showed inconclusive evidence to support tai chi as a preventative measure against cardiovascular disease.
Mental health and cognitive function
Tai chi is a tranquil, fluid martial art, and it has associations with mindfulness and psychological well-being.
However, the evidence is thin on the ground for the mental health benefits of tai chi. Some studies have promoted a link, but a large 2010 meta-analysis of 40 studies failed to provide definitive conclusions.
Similarly, a review of 27 studies the same year could not confirm a statistically significant relationship. Of 77 total articles, only 27 referred to the mental health benefits of tai chi.
Studies looking at the effect of tai chi on cognitive function yielded more promising results.
A systematic review and meta-analysis from 2014 involved 2,553 adults, aged 60 years and over, who did not have cognitive impairments. The results were significant in showing beneficial effects on cognitive function. The studies also demonstrated small but significant benefits for people who were cognitively impaired.
A review from 2015 of nine studies involving 632 healthy adults showed the potential benefits of tai chi for cognitive ability. It advocated further large-scale studies to confirm the potential benefits of tai chi.
While tai chi is a gentle, low-impact activity, people should seek medical advice before starting. This especially applies to people who are older, pregnant, or experiencing back pain and osteoporosis.
There are five different styles of tai chi, dating from different periods in history. Each has a unique set of methods and principles, lineage, and date of origin.
- Chen-style, which started between 1580 and 1660
- Yang-style, which started between 1799 and 1872
- Wu- or Wu (Hao)-style, which started between 1812 and 1880
- Wu-style, which started between 1870 and 1942
- Sun-style, which started between 1861 and 1932
Some of these forms of tai chi lean towards health, while others stress competition or self-defense.
People considering a course in tai chi should speak to the instructor about which style they practice and whether it will offer the expected benefits.
The true origins of tai chi remain a mystery, but the concepts are rooted in Chinese history, Taoism, and Confucianism.
The founder of tai chi is believed to be Zhang Sanfeng, a 12th-century Taoist monk. Some stories claim that Zhang Sanfeng left his monastery to become a hermit and that he created a form of fighting based on softness.
Sanfeng reportedly said:
“In every movement, every part of the body must be light and agile and strung together. The postures should be without breaks. Motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, directed by the waist and expressed by the fingers. Substantial and insubstantial movements must be clearly differentiated.”
The low-impact nature of tai chi means it is suitable for people of all ages.