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?
Tai Chi was first recognised as a martial art hundreds of years ago in China. It focuses on combining breathing and relaxation with flowing movements.
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
Although originally developed as a martial art, there is increasing evidence that Tai Chi has a range of physical and mental health benefits. As a result, it is often now practised to improve health.
What are the main health benefits?
There are thought to be widespread health benefits of Tai Chi, ranging from reducing the risk of falls, to improving physical fitness and mental health.
In research, there are often many studies doing similar investigations. When this happens, it is often better to combine the studies to get the most consistent findings. This process is done using a systematic review.
To prevent falls
Tai Chi may help to improve balance and prevent falls, a benefit which is greatest for older adults. 18 trials with 3824 participants
One systematic review in 2016, examined 18 trials with 3824 participants. It found that there was a lower rate of falls in older adults who practised Tai Chi, compared to those who did not and that the more frequently a person practised, the greater the benefit.
According to a 2018 review which examined 10 studies, involving 720 participants, this could be particularly beneficial in reducing falls for Parkinson’s disease and for patients who have suffered a stroke.
Evidence suggests that the benefit of Tai Chi may be greater for those who are still physically active, rather than those who are old and frail. This may explain why findings from different studies are not always consistent.
To improve cardiorespiratory fitness
One systematic review, published in 2017, considered 20 studies, with 1,868 participants. It found that Tai Chi appeared to improve the cardiac function of healthy adults. This included improvements in blood pressure, heart rate and lung capacity.
However, the review noted that most of the studies were of a low quality, indicating that larger-scale, well-designed trials are needed before we can be confident of the findings.
To improve psychological wellbeing
Many believe Tai Chi improves mental health and psychological wellbeing. These effects include reducing stress, anxiety, depression and mood disturbance, and increasing self-esteem.
One small 12-week study, published in 2017, found that Tai Chi reduced anxiety and stress in healthy people. This was assessed by both self-assessments, including questionnaires, and by looking at physiological factors, such as blood pressure and heart rate.
Tai Chi may also improve sleep quality. A 10-week study, published in 2016 concluded that young adults practising Tai Chi had a greater improvement in sleep quality and reduced anxiety compared with those not practising.
One systematic review, published in 2018, suggested that Tai Chi may improve self-efficacy, which is defined as the belief we have in our own capabilities. However, while 15 of the studies reviewed indicated that Tai Chi had significant positive effects on self efficacy, 11 studies did not and one study found a negative outcome. This suggests more research is needed.
To improve brain function
It is thought that Tai Chi can alter the structure and function of the brain.
A 2018 systematic review of eleven studies using brain imaging and EEG (electroencephalogram) showed beneficial changes in the brains of older adults practising Tai Chi. This included improved connectivity between regions within the brain, which may lead to improvements in cognition.
Are there other possible health benefits?
Some research suggests that Tai Chi may help with the following medical conditions:
Arthritis – a year-long study with 343 participants reported improved pain, fatigue and stiffness for people with arthritis.
Cancer – a 2017 systematic review considered 22 studies, including 15 RCTs (Randomised Control Trials – high quality research) with 1283 participants. It suggested Tai Chi could help cancer patients with their symptoms, including fatigue, sleep difficulty, pain and depression. However, larger longer-term trials are needed before we can be sure.
Parkinson’s Disease – a systematic review, published in 2017, suggested that Tai Chi may improve motor function, reduce the risk of falling, and improve mood and quality of life.
Is Tai Chi only beneficial for older adults?
Absolutely not – one 2016 review, of 76 studies, with 9,263 student participants, showed a number of benefits for students. Practising Tai Chi improved physical outcomes such as flexibility, lung capacity and run time, as well as psychological wellbeing, including symptoms of anxiety and depression, and sleep quality.
Points to consider
Many studies show promising results and that Tai Chi may be beneficial in multiple ways. However, it is important to remember that some evidence is based on studies of a lower quality.
This doesn’t mean that Tai Chi isn’t beneficial to mental and physical health. It does mean it would be helpful to have stronger research evidence to confirm what initial studies have suggested.
Having a greater number of studies could also provide more information about the optimum duration and frequency of practising Tai Chi, and whether some forms of Tai Chi are more beneficial than others.
Is Tai Chi more beneficial than other types of exercise?
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 wellbeing and reducing the risk of some chronic diseases.
Tai Chi is a gentle but structured form of exercise. It is therefore likely to provide some of the health benefits that we see from exercise.
Perhaps we need more research to conclude 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, results in 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.
You may also 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 beneficial for mental and physical health.
- Evidence suggests it is most likely to be beneficial in preventing falls, and improving fitness, psychological wellbeing and brain function.
- 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, but if you have a medical condition or are pregnant, check with your doctor first.
Reviewed and updated by Jodie Pearlman, March 2020. Next review February 2024