Tai Chi, or Tai Chi Chuan, is a traditional Chinese exercise that has been around for some 2000 years. It combines deep breathing and relaxation with a series of postures that flow smoothly from one to the next while using only slow, gentle, graceful movements.
Only recently has it been the subject of scientific study, with the result that Tai Chi does appear to offer numerous health benefits-from better balance and flexibility to less anxiety and depression.
Researchers at UCLA have discover-ed that doing Tai Chi can promote better sleep compared with attending health-education classes that include advice on stress management, diet and sleep habits. After 25 weeks, patients in the Tai Chi group reported greater improvements in self-rated sleep quality compared with the health-education group. Also, it appeared that the amount of benefit with Tai Chi was comparable to that with drugs, with better sleep efficiency and duration, as well as sleep quality-and no adverse side-effects (Sleep, 2008; 31: 1001-8).
These results mirror those of a previous study that compared Tai Chi with low-impact exercise. Those doing Tai Chi were more likely to improve their sleep quality compared with those doing the low-impact exercise(J Am Geriatr Soc, 2004; 52: 892-900).
However, the benefits of Tai Chi go far beyond a good night's sleep. It isa promising form of exercise for improving balance and preventing falls, a major cause of injury and even death in older people (BMC Geriatr, 2006; 6: 6). Indeed, it has been shown to improve the characteristics in older adults that place them at increased risk of falls such as poor balance, loss of strength, limited flexibility and fear of falling (Med Sport Sci, 2008; 52: 124-34). Eight to 16 weeks of Tai Chi training improved balance, flexibility and heart health (Arch Intern Med, 2004; 164: 493-501), and reduced the risk of multiple falls by nearly half (J Am Geriatr Soc, 1996; 44: 489-97).
Besides promoting better physical fitness and sleep, Tai Chi may also be useful for patients with musculo-skeletal diseases such as arthritis. One randomized, controlled trial reported that 12 weeks of Sun-style Tai Chi significantly improved joint symptoms, balance and physical functioning in women with osteoarthritis (J Rheumatol, 2003; 30: 2039-44).
Another osteoarthritis study found that Tai Chi relieved joint pain and stiffness as well as promoted positive behaviours such as a healthier diet and better stress management (Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi, 2007; 37: 249-56).
In patients with rheumatoid arthritis, Tai Chi led to improvements in disability, quality of life, depression and mood (Med Sport Sci, 2008; 52: 218-29; Rheumatology [Oxford], 2007; 46: 1648-51). It was also able to slow bone loss (Arch Phys Med Rehabil, 2007; 88: 673-80), suggesting that it may be useful for osteoporosis.
Other research suggests that Tai Chi may even help cancer survivors. In a recent study by scientists from the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center in Rochester, NY, breast-cancer survivors practising Tai Chi experienced signif-icant improvements in quality of life compared with those receiving only psychosocial support therapy. The Tai Chi group also showed better aerobic capacity, muscle strength and flexi-bility (Med Sport Sci, 2008; 52: 209-17).
However, it's not clear whether or not it is Tai Chi per se that brings about these effects or simply any type of exercise, so more research is currently underway on this topic (see http:// clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00246818). Nevertheless, according to one review, it may be the combination of meditation and aerobic exercise that makes Tai Chi especially beneficial for cancer survivors (Integr Cancer Ther, 2006; 5: 192-201).
Other chronic conditions that have responded positively to Tai Chi in scientific studies include high blood pressure (Prev Cardiol, 2008; 11: 82-9), type 2 diabetes (Med Sport Sci, 2008; 52: 230-8), fibromyalgia (Orthop Nurs, 2003; 22: 353-60), multiple sclerosis (Altern Ther Health Med, 1999; 5: 70-4) and tension headaches (Evid Based Complement Alternat Med, 2007; 4: 107-13). Tai Chi may also reduce stress and anxiety, boost immunity, and improve cardiovascular and respiratory health (Arch Intern Med, 2004; 164: 493-501).
These findings show that you don't have to exercise hard and fast to achieve significant benefits. In fact, this gentle, low-intensity form of exercise appears to be an effective way to improve both your body and mind.
How does Tai Chi work?
Tai Chi is based on the traditional Chinese concept that all disease stems from an imbalance of qi (chi, prana or vital energy), which is said to flow through the body along invisible pathways called 'meridians'. We are in good health when qi flows freely, but symptoms such as headaches, anxiety, high blood pressure and fatigue are signs that energy flow is congested. Tai Chi is one of a number of means of restoring or enhancing the balanced flow of qi through the body's meridians. Other techniques include acupuncture, reiki and Chi Gong.