Tai chi is a noncompetitive martial art known for its health benefits. 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. The activity may also reduce the risk of falls in older people.

Tai chi also appears to reduce pain and the symptoms of depression in some cases.

This martial art is an ancient Chinese tradition that has evolved over centuries. Some people use tai chi to help alleviate stress and anxiety. Others claim it promotes serenity and inner peace.

People generally regard it as safe for individuals 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.

Share on Pinterest
MoMo Productions/Getty Images

Various research suggests tai chi offers a range of benefits for people with and without chronic conditions. These benefits include:

Fall reduction

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 practices to prevent falls in older adults.

The studies involved more than 79,193 people, with the authors concluding 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.

Meanwhile, a 2014 review found that exercises, including tai chi, might have reduced the fear of falling among older adults in a retirement community immediately after a workout. However, the review did not reach any conclusions about tai chi reducing the frequency of falls.

One 2012 trial of 195 older adults with Parkinson’s disease showed that tai chi helped treat balance issues with more success than resistance training or regular stretching.

Another article notes that the activity is a successful exercise intervention for factors related to falls in older people.

The evidence from these studies suggests that tai chi might help support many aspects of balance and posture.

Chronic pain

Several small studies suggest that tai chi can significantly impact the chronic pain that people experience 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.

However, the review authors recommended further, larger-scale trials to support their conclusions, as the studies they examined had flaws and potential biases.

A 2015 review of 54 studies involving 3,913 participants provided moderate-quality evidence that tai chi could help improve physical function in those with knee osteoarthritis. While tai chi only formed the basis of five of the studies, 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 to help manage fibromyalgia.

A 2010 trial showed tai chi to be better than wellness education and stretching for regularizing sleep patterns and treating symptoms of pain and fatigue in people with fibromyalgia.

A 2012 study of 101 people suggested that combining tai chi with mindfulness training could improve fibromyalgia symptoms and functional difficulties.

Chronic heart failure

Some practitioners of tai chi praise it as an effective management tool for people with chronic heart failure. However, current evidence does not support this conclusion. Any studies showing an improvement indicate 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. However, the quality of the studies was low, and the researchers drew no definitive conclusions.

A 2014 review of 13 small trials also showed inconclusive evidence to support the activity as a preventative measure against cardiovascular disease.

However, the results of one trial, which followed people after a recent heart attack, demonstrated that tai chi significantly improved maximum oxygen capacity.

Mental health and cognitive function

Tai chi is a tranquil, fluid martial art that has associations with mindfulness and psychological well-being.

However, the evidence is thin on the ground for the mental health benefits of the activity. Some studies suggest a link, but a large 2010 meta-analysis of 40 studies failed to provide definitive conclusions.

Research 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 with and without 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 2015 review 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 any form of exercise. This especially applies to those who are:

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.

They are:

  • Chen style, which began sometime between 1528 and 1587
  • Yang style, which began sometime between 1799 and 1872
  • Wu or Wu Hao style, which began sometime between 1812 and 1880
  • Wu style, which began sometime between 1870 and 1942
  • Sun style, which began sometime between 1861 and 1932

Some of these forms of tai chi lean towards health, while others stress competition or self-defense.

People considering a tai chi course should speak to an experienced 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.

Zhang Sanfeng, a 12th-century Taoist monk, is believed to be the founder of tai chi. Some stories claim that Zhang Sanfeng left his monastery to become a hermit, after which he created a form of fighting based on softness.

Tai chi is a low-impact, noncompetitive martial art that is known for its potential health benefits.

Researchers have conducted many studies on this martial art to understand its health benefits.

Some studies show tai chi can improve brain function, lower stress and depression, and reduce chronic pain.

However, scientists must conduct further studies to confirm its benefits.

People who wish to start practicing tai chi should consult their doctor first if possible.