You’ve probably seen groups of people practicing tai chi in a park, so you have some idea what it’s all about. Slow, mindful movements. No weights. Low intensity. The practice combines aspects of ancient Chinese medicine, philosophy and martial arts, and it’s the antithesis of most modern exercise programs that emphasize fast, vigorous activity.
Indeed, certain parts of tai chi are thousands of years old. But while tai chi may look mundane—even boring to some—experts who’ve studied it say its benefits are vast and hard to oversell.
Tai chi is a richly researched exercise, with health improvements ranging from better blood pressure scores to a sharper mind. Much research has seen improved immunity to viruses and improved vaccine response among people who practiced tai chi. More than a dozen studies linking tai chi to lower rates of insomnia, depression, illness and inflammation have been published.
It holds up when compared to other more strenuous types of exercise. Over time, we see people who do tai chi achieve similar levels of fitness as those who walk or do other forms of physical therapy. Another review found that the practice may improve fitness and endurance of the heart and lungs, even for healthy adults.
Part of that is due to tai chi’s soothing effects on the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which tends to activate when a person is under stress. Much like aerobic exercise, tai chi seems to increase hormone and heart-rate measures linked with lower SNS activity, which could partly explain its ties to stronger hearts and lungs.
But how could such low-intensity exercise—something that involves movements with names like “cloud hands” and “lifting a lute”—offer these kinds of fitness perks?
“One of the most striking things we’ve found is that [tai chi’s] physiological impacts can’t be explained by its physical activity component,” Dr. Michael Irwin, a professor of behavioural sciences and director of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre at UCLA says. It’s the mindful, meditative quality of tai chi that makes it so compelling, and that may explain the practice’s broad benefits.
It’s a rare aspect of exercise. Unlike almost every other form of physical activity, tai chi demands focus, which is central to its meditative benefits. “Even with yoga, you can do it and have your mind be somewhere else,” Irwin says. “It’s very hard to do tai chi and not be present.”
Unfortunately today, many gentle exercise fitness classes are popping up everywhere baring the name ‘Tai Chi’ somewhere in its title, BEWARE, once again the true, genuine benefits of the complete art of Tai Chi have been striped away and you will be left with just the physical moves and a false hope of better internal health and all other positive attributes that will come to you from practicing a genuine Tai Chi System.