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Tai chi: Stress reduction, balance, agility and more
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Tai chi (ti-CHE) is sometimes described as "meditation in motion." Originally developed in China as a form of self-defense, this graceful form of exercise has existed for about 2,000 years. It's becoming increasingly popular around the world, both as a basic exercise program and as a complement to other health care methods. Health benefits include stress reduction, greater balance and increased flexibility — especially for older adults.

What is tai chi?

Tai chi is a noncompetitive, self-paced system of gentle physical exercise. To do tai chi, you perform a defined series of postures or movements in a slow, graceful manner. Each movement or posture flows into the next without pausing.

Who is tai chi for?

If you're trying to improve your general health, you may find tai chi helpful as part of your program. Tai chi is generally safe for people of all ages and levels of fitness. Studies have shown that for older adults tai chi can improve balance and reduce the risk of falls. Because the movements are low impact and put minimal stress on your muscles and joints, tai chi is appealing to many older adults. For these same reasons, if you have a condition such as arthritis or you're recovering from an injury, you may find it useful.

Tai chi appears to offer both physical and mental benefits no matter what your age. It's used to:

  • Reduce stress
  • Increase flexibility
  • Improve muscle strength and definition
  • Increase energy, stamina and agility
  • Increase feelings of well-being

Tai chi hasn't been studied scientifically until recently. Preliminary research shows that for older adults, in particular, practicing tai chi regularly may:

  • Reduce anxiety and depression
  • Improve balance and coordination, reducing the number of falls
  • Improve sleep quality, such as staying asleep longer at night and feeling more alert during the day
  • Slow bone loss in women following menopause
  • Reduce high blood pressure
  • Improve cardiovascular fitness
  • Relieve chronic pain
  • Improve everyday physical functioning

Types of tai chi

Like yoga, many styles of tai chi exist. Some of these styles include:

  • Chen
  • Hao
  • Sun
  • Wu
  • Yang
  • Zhao Bao

The intensity of tai chi varies somewhat depending on the style. For example, the Chen style may be more fast-paced than other styles. However, most styles are gentle and suitable for everyone. Talk to your doctor and tai chi instructor to make sure the style you're using is appropriate for your physical capabilities.

Pros and cons

When learned correctly and practiced regularly, tai chi appears to be a very positive form of exercise:

  • It's self-paced and noncompetitive.
  • You don't need a large physical space or special clothing or equipment.
  • You can do tai chi anytime, anyplace.
  • It's easy to do in groups as well as by yourself.
  • You can add new movements as you become more proficient.

Because tai chi is slow and gentle, it has virtually no negative side effects. It's possible you could strain yourself or "overdo" things when first learning, but with proper instruction, this shouldn't pose a barrier to practicing tai chi.

How to learn tai chi

To gain the full benefits of tai chi and reduce the small risk of injury, learn the correct way to do the postures and movements. Strict attention to your body position and breathing are critical, so it's best to study directly under a teacher rather than with a book or videotape. As you attend a series of classes, the instructor can give you personal guidance and correct any errors in your approach before they become habit. As you practice, you learn how to do tai chi without straining your muscles and joints.

Once you're comfortable with the tai chi basics, you can do it by yourself. You may find it helpful to practice tai chi in the same place and at the same time every day. You'll likely experience some health benefits right away, but they probably won't be dramatic. Be patient. Health benefits accumulate over time.

You can find tai chi classes in cities throughout the United States. To locate a class in your community, contact your local senior center, YMCA or YWCA, health club or wellness center.

Although tai chi is generally safe, consider talking with your doctor before starting a new program. This is particularly true if you have any problems with your joints, spine or heart.

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  • December 07, 2005

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