What is Tai Chi? Does it have possible health benefits? How do we know? Are there any risks we need to be aware of?
What is Tai Chi?
There are a number of different styles of Tai Chi but each usually consists of:
- Gentle initial warm up
- Slow rhythmic sets of movements coordinated with breathing
These movements are said to help relaxation and the attainment of inner calm.
Tai Chi started life as a martial art hundreds of years ago in China. However, it is usually now practised for what are perceived to be its physical and mental health benefits.
What are the main health benefits?
A research review published in the BMJ in 2011, concluded, ‘Relatively clear evidence emerged to suggest that tai chi is effective for fall prevention and improving psychological health and was associated with general health benefits for older people.’
- Improving Balance and reducing falls has been reported in a number of studies, including a 2010 review of research findings in The Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy. However Tai Chi seemed to help those who were still physically active rather than those who were old and frail. This might explain the different results from different reviews and why a Dutch study from 2010 found insufficient evidence of a positive effect. There may also be particular value for stroke patients. That’s according to a small US study reported by the American Heart Association in 2013.
- Psychological wellbeing, including reduced stress, anxiety, depression and mood disturbance and increased self-esteem. That’s the verdict of a review in BioMed Central Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2010. However reviews of the research so far have observed limitations in the way research has been conducted and call for high quality, well controlled, longer randomized trials to confirm the initial research findings.
Are there other possible health benefits?
Some research suggests that Tai Chi may help with the following medical conditions:
Arthritis - a short, small scale study published in Musculoskeletal Disorders in 2010 reported improved muscle function in lower limbs for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Blood pressure and BMI management –This is suggested by a recent published study suggesting that six months of Tai Chi exercises had a beneficial effect on quality of life, physical health (including reduction in blood pressure and BMI) and mental health for chronic heart failure patients.
Breast cancer– Tai Chi has been suggested as helpful by a number of studies but these have usually been of a low quality. A systematic review of the research published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2014 suggested that only hand grip and upper body limb physical fitness benefitted from Tai Chi among breast cancer patients.
Patients with Cardiovascular Disease – There seems to be more agreement that Tai Chi can help with the rehabilitation of cardiac patients, as in reviews published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine in 2012 and in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2013.
Improve elements of muscle dysfunction in movement disorders, such as movement in Parkinson’s disease, as reported from a small study in Advances in Parkinson’s Disease in 2015.
Improve cognitive function in older adults i.e. help keep your brain in better working order. This was suggested by a review of the research, in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 2014.
Points to bear in mind
NHS Knowledge Service reports a study which considered 35 systematic reviews. This study suggested that Tai Chi can help prevent falls and improve psychological health. However the NHS added an important caveat i.e. these should be taken as tentative conclusions because only 9 of the 35 studies were of a high quality, meaning more high quality research is needed.
This doesn’t mean that Tai isn’t beneficial to mental and physical health – but it does mean it would be helpful to have stronger research evidence to confirm what initial studies have suggested.
As we report elsewhere it is widely recognised that exercise is good for our mental and physical health, including strengthening our bones and joints, protecting our heart, improving mental well-being and reducing the risk of some chronic diseases.
Tai Chi is a gentle but structured form of exercise. As such it can be expected to provide some of the health benefits of exercise more generally. Perhaps what we need more research to ascertain is whether Tai Chi provides health benefits simply because it is a form of exercise – or whether the particular nature of the exercise and the possible overlap with meditation produce additional health benefits.
Are there any health risks?
Although Tai Chi is generally safe, it is advisable to check with your doctor before starting if you have a medical condition, are pregnant, have any limiting musculoskeletal problem (e.g. joint or spine problems or severe osteoporosis) or are taking any medication that can make you feel dizzy.
Furthermore, you will probably want to check your instructor’s training and experience and/or get recommendations – as there is no requirement for Tai Chi instructors to be licensed.
- As a relatively gentle, structured form of exercise Tai Chai is likely to be generally beneficial for mental and physical health.
- Studies suggest it is most likely to be helpful in preventing falls among those who remain physically active and in maintaining psychological well being.
- A range of other health benefits have been suggested but higher quality research is needed to confirm the initial findings.
- Health risks appear to be low, although, as usual, if you have a medical condition or are pregnant check with your doctor first.
Reviewed November 2015 by Devika K K Jethwa and Michael Baber. Next review date November 2019.