Health Benefits of Tai Chi

Posted on April 28th, 2012; Updated: April 1st 2014

If you’re not sure about trying something like this with a condition or injury that you have, then ask your doctor or your physiotherapist for their input. It’s always important to check things out first if you are not sure. I’m an ‘expert patient’ and post-graduate researcher but I’m not medically trained. So if you’re not sure, always speak to someone who is trained, first. x

I started learning Yang style Tai Chi when my conditions stopped me from doing my physio’ exercises at the gym. My intention was to keep my body working as much as possible until I could return to my previous level of exercise programme. I intended to continue with the Tai Chi for pleasure even after I improved physically, but I would have focused more on the gym stuff for helping me with my conditions.

It’s been nearly three years and I still have not managed to return to the gym, but I have got hooked on Tai Chi!

And it has done more than just keep my body going. It has helped me with pain control (my original intention), but also with balance, confidence in my own body capability, respiration issues, calming my nervous systems, awareness of what different parts of my body are doing, as well as building up strength in my legs and core. I pay more attention to how I move these days, (so bruises are less frequent!), and the way in which I move at home to step over and around things has changed for the better. I’ve even noticed some Tai Chi foot moves when making a cuppa in the kitchen!

My version of the final position of the 'Single Whip' move, x (2012)

My early version of the final position of the ‘Single Whip’ move, x (2012)

It has also given me something to learn. I’m doing something progressive, which makes me feel much more positive about myself, and about my days, (which are spent relentlessly working around my conditions). Tai Chi is something I look forward to, and it’s great fun working on the improvements and learning more as time goes by.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. There is loads of research out there that has demonstrated some of the health benefits that Tai Chi can facilitate. Just an hour or so scouring various journals resulted in about 40 different research papers, and three quarters of them have been published within the last two years!

And we’re talking ‘proper’ scientific research here. Yep, controlled variables, peer reviewed, the lot. So… blummin’ good stuff, basically!

Bear in mind that research has to be really specific. So the published results can only say exactly what the research looked into, even if the researchers suspect that other age groups or conditions may be helped as well. They’d have to do a whole separate bit of research to scientifically check that out before they could say anything of the sort.

Some conditions share some characteristics, though, which may give you an idea about whether it’s worth trying Tai Chi. For example, I’ve found research showing that Tai Chi helps with pain control in fibromyalgia, lower back pain and arthritis. I have none of these conditions, but I use Tai Chi in the same way to help to control the pain levels of my condition, CRPS. Even though no researcher has looked into this specific combination…. Yet!

Unless you count my own experience, of course? In which case it is a positive outcome from this one-person case-study. 🙂

I have yet to attempt to grow the film-worthy wispy beard of the Tai Chi master, but as I’m still a beginner I think I have time. However, as I’m a girl I may have to purchase a Monty Python style hook-over-the-ears fake beard instead. Not sure how I’m going to achieve the matching Sifu eyebrows, though. Perhaps it’s a secret they teach us later on! 😉

I have listed below some conditions that research has, so far, shown Tai Chi to be helpful for, (and the numbers relate to relevant research links to be found at the end of this page)…..

  • Chronic Stroke – the researchers concluded that community-based Tai Chi is a safe programme for stroke survivors and that participant satisfaction was high. They suggested that a larger study should be carried out to confirm this. (this research used Yang style Tai Chi)27
  • Cardiac rehabilitation – balance and perceived physical health were significantly better for the Tai Chi participants2. (average age of participants was 70, and the study used Wu style Tai Chi)
  • Low back pain – reduced pain intensity, improved self-reported disability14.
  • Fibromyalgia – very large study (247 participants), improved pain levels1 and quality of life which were still being maintained at the 24 week follow-up)25 (12 weeks of Tai Chi)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis – improved pain relief, very large study1; improved lower-limb muscle function, the experience of the physical condition, confidence in moving, balance, as well as reduced pain in exercise and in day-to-day living (12 weeks of Tai Chi)30
  • Osteoarthritis – improved pain relief, very large study1
  • Knee osteoarthritis in elderly patients – improved overall knee pain and improved maximum knee pain6.
  • Lower- limb osteoarthritis – pain reduction and also found that Tai Chi exercise programs have better results than mixed exercise programs11. (metareview of 33 studies)
  • Osteopaenia – many improvements including pain levels, energy levels and physical functionality10.
  • Parkinsons Disease – small study concluding that Tai Chi can be used as a safe and effective form of rehabilitation for some patients18. (12 weeks of Tai Chi)
  • Peripheral neuropathy – improvement of physical performance – improved in up-and-go test (getting out of a chair, walking round an obstacle and returning to sit down), increased distance covered in a 6 minute walk, and improved leg strength performance21. (24 weeks of Tai Chi)
  • Physical & cognition in older patients. The authors refer to detrimental effects of health issues impacting negatively on cognition. They report that Tai Chi has been shown to work positively on these issues8.
  • Mild cognitive impairment – improvement of the performance of memory complaints in elderly women17. (six months of Tai Chi, small preliminary study)
  • Anxiety – reduction12, participants also reported feeling more relaxed and peaceful15.
  • Depression in the over 60’s – improved quality of life, memory and cognition, and energy levels)26. (10 weeks of Tai Chi)
  • Neuropsychological, emotional and physical functioning after cancer treatment – improvements24. (10 weeks of Tai Chi) (researchers suggest further controlled trails regarding the potential benefits of Tai Chi on neuropsychological functioning)
  • Brain injury – reported improvement in mood and self-esteem4. (small preliminary study)

(A Cystic Fibrosis pilot study in 201324B did not yield significant results, but this may be owing to the small sample group. A full trial (with a larger sample group of course) was started in July 2013).

And I bet there’ll be plenty more to add to this list as more research gets published. Especially if studies continue down the ‘cost effective’ route. Perhaps if the financial benefits are shown to be relevant to our health system with regards to more than just falls prevention3 then we might see the availability and encouragement of Tai Chi increase even more.

The last six items in the list demonstrate that Tai Chi is not only positive in working around physical conditions. It has been shown to have a positive impact on us psychologically, as well. Studies have shown that Tai Chi can improve the quality of life of residents in nursing homes19; and also to increase and improve work output in older nurses23. This may sound a bit wafty and inexplicable…

…until you come across the large research study published this year29 that compared conventional physiotherapy with Tai Chi and found that the one significant difference between the two treatments is that Tai Chi promoted self-efficacy, whereas standard physiotherapy did not. This is a very important result for all involved in physiotherapy, let alone the grinning masses who love Tai Chi!

Eleven years earlier, a smaller study20 of low-active but healthy people had shown that Tai Chi enhances self-efficacy and also exercise behaviour. And I’m so glad that the recent larger study has backed this up, and with relevance to our older population, as well. As far as I’m concerned, this study is of major impact because self-efficacy is bound up with our self-esteem, our confidence, our value of ourselves, and it hugely affects whether we stick with a physiotherapy programme or not. It is so important, simply because it affects whether we keep up the physio’ required to effect improvement. It’s to do with motivation, and self confidence. It’s a large part of the key to whether we succeed in our battle with whatever condition or injury we may be working with. This is why I rate this study so highly, for its level of relevance and importance to us all.

The research into the effects of Tai Chi on rheumatoid arthritis used a mixture of methodologies. The research was both in statistical form (quantitative), and participants’ own words, (qualitative). This mixture of methodologies revealed how Tai Chi also had effects other than just the measureable disease/health ones. The authors suggest that this may hint at how Tai Chi can be so successful30. Supporting this, in addition to positive outcomes for specific conditions, research has also found that Tai Chi to have improved the following:

  • Sense of well-being1
  • Quality of life16, 25
  • Sleep quality1, 16
  • Fatigue1
  • Immune system, (cellular immune function – anti-virus and anti-infection), in those lacking exercise31
  • Anti-oxidant defences in pre- and post menopausal women22
  • Stiffness1
  • Balance 1 – improved balance control, both when static and when moving (‘dynamic’)7, 5, 32
  • Smoothness of rapid-aiming arm movements in older people32
  • Perceived physical health2
  • General health10
  • Vitality/energy10, 16
  • Attentiveness13
  • Weekly levels of physical activity16
  • Stride width (may help to reduce risk factors for falls)10
  • Gait (the way we walk)10
  • Decreased the incidence of falls29
  • Less fear of falling5
  • Decreased heart-rate and blood pressure13
  • Increased vagal activity  (for reference: the vagus nerve is important for the nervous system and is involved in the balancing out of automatic processes, for example calming processes like heart-rate and blood pressure, whilst stimulating others like digestion and storage of absorbed nutrients)15
  • Decreased cholesterol13
  • Larger health benefits with community based Tai Chi, than with laboratory based training5.
  • And not forgetting, of course, self-efficacy which deserves another mention!29 (associated with higher levels of programme attendance and exercise adherence)20

If there’s one thing that crops up again and again in conversations with my Tai Ch classmates, it’s how good it makes us feel, within ourselves and about ourselves. We feel that we are achieving something and we really enjoy it. It mysteriously adds value, and that can only be a good thing. And if we’re going to look after our health, it is much better for the soul and heart to do it in a way that we enjoy.

I’m not saying, of course, that because I love Tai Chi you should go and learn it too! But I am saying that there are gentle ways to keep your body going, even when you are working around a condition, and that those ways can even be enjoyable. The amazing bonus is that they can even be helpful in a way that standard physiotherapy just can’t address.

You may not fancy Tai Chi. Perhaps you’re thinking of trying out a gentle hatha yoga or pilates class. But whatever you are considering I say ‘go for it’. Go along and try a lesson. Talk to the teacher first about any conditions or injuries you may have. If they are a good and well-trained teacher, they will come and ask you first. Having a good teacher makes a massive difference. Don’t let one bad teacher or uninspiring lesson put you off. Some lessons are more of the ‘going through the motions’ type, than learning true Tai Chi specifics33. Don’t settle for less than you deserve – try a different teacher, or a different kind of class. Try as many different classes as you want to. Maybe pilates didn’t do it for you, but perhaps yoga or Tai Chi would. You don’t know until you try.

Tai Chi involves slow, controlled movements but the body is relaxed, not tense. It often includes breathing exercises from QiGong which help to relax the body. The movements are gentle and graceful. It is slow enough to give the brain time to think about what’s coming next and so there is time to prepare the body to move almost seamlessly. The legs are bent, but only as much as is suitable for each individual. (If you saw the You Tube clips in my ‘Tai Chi Glee’ post, don’t worry – you don’t have to bend your knees that much)!

I have found that learning Tai Chi gets easier as time goes on because once you get the principles in your head it becomes more natural, even when learning a completely new move. I’ve seen a lot of people try a class, say that they loved it but that it was difficult to get their head round, and then never come back. Which is a shame, because I’ve found that it actually gets easier as times goes on, not harder. And not over loads of time, either, after Tai-Chi-ing for just over a year the way my brain and body process new moves has improved enormously because I now have a foundation of experience to work with.

One study9 advised that there are suggestions that the positive outcomes from learning Tai Chi could improve even more depending on the level to which it is mastered. So, in addition to the overwhelming motivation to give something like this a whirl, there’s also the motivation to keep on learning more!

Hmmm, this photo' lark could be handy. I'm spotting things to amend! ;-) (Punch, 2012)

Hmmm, this photo’ lark could be handy. I’m spotting things to amend! 😉
(Punch, 2012)

Tai Chi is not solely the realm of the grey-haired or of the super-duper young and fit…it is appropriate for pretty much all ages and abilities. From martial artists expanding their knowledge, to creaky people like me. My teacher has taught people recovering post-stroke, people in wheelchairs, people like me with chronic pain or variable heart-rates…. all sorts.

So if you feel the urge to give it a whirl…go for it! You might be discovering a new beloved hobby. 🙂

x

A recent article in a Tai Chi magazine described how veteran, Shaun Foulds, found Tai Chi and QiGong to be extremely helpful in working with his Gulf War Syndrome (including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, chronic fatigue asthma, nightmares, flashbacks, short-term memory loss and joint pains)13B. Using it alongside his NHS treatments he found it helped to reduce stress and to better manage his symptoms. He found it so useful that he has even ended up teaching. (He initially found Tai Chi and QiGong through the UK charity Combat Stress and he recommends the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association).

A new concept of ‘fascia’ had me intrigued as it links together the organs, muscles, nerves and so on and provides a new concept for full body movement. Fascia is made from densely packed collagen fibres (which immediately raises some questions for those of us with hypermobility) and is described in the article21B as a kind of elastic ‘body suit’, which applies rather beautiful to Tai Chi in understanding the concept of what is being stretched in each move, which bits are taught and will recoil, and so on. It helps to demonstrate the holistic nature of body movements, that is that when we move one part of our body it is still having effects on the rest of the body so the whole body is involved in even a partial body movement. I can see how the concept can be beneficial to teaching and understanding Tai Chi, if I hear any more about it I shall pop back and add more here, x

.

References:

1. Archer, S. (2011) ‘Practicing Tai Chi Provides Arthritis Pain Relief’ in IDEA Fitness Journal, Vol. 8, Issue 3, p 72

2. Archer, S. (2011) ‘Tai Chi Recommended for Long-Term Cardiac Rehab’ in IDEA Fitness Journal, Vol. 8, Issue 4, p 71

3. Archer, S. (2011) ‘Tai Chi Training Proves Cost-Effective’ in IDEA Fitness Journal, Vol. 8, Issue 10, p 77

4. Blake, H. (2009) ‘Exercise intervention in brain injury: a pilot randomized study of Tai Chi Qigong’ in Clinical Rehabilitation, Vol. 23, pp589-598

5. Bagalev, S., Pirovski, N. & Pirovska, A. (2011) ‘Health Benefits from Training Tai Chi’ in Trakia Journal of Sciences, Vol. 9, Issue 4, pp 88-91

6. Brismee, J-M., Paige, R.L., Chyu, M-C., et al (2007) ‘Group and home-based tai chi in elderly subjects with knee osteoarthritis: a randomized controlled trial’ in Clinical Rehabilitation, Vol. 21, Issue 2, pp 99-111

7. Caride, J.R.S., Calvo, X.D., Garcia, M.A.G., et al (2008) ‘Three Months of Practice of Tai-Chi-Chuan Improve the Balance of People Older than 60 Years: Practical Study in Fitness & Performance Journal, Vol. 7, Issue 5, pp 306-311

8. Chang, Y-K., Nien Y-H., Tsai, C-L. & Etnier, J.L. (2010) ‘Physical Activity and Cognition in Older Adults: The Potential of Tai Chi Chuan’ in Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, Vol. 18, pp 451-472

9. Chiang, J., Chen., Y.Y., Akiko, T., et al (2010) ‘Tai Chi Chuan Increases Circulating Myeloid Dendritic Cells, in Immunological Investigations, Vol. 39, Issue 8, pp 863-873

10. Chyu, M-C., James, C.R., Sawyer, S.F., et al (2010) ‘Effects of tai chi exercise on posturography, gait, physical function and quality of life in postmenopausal women with osteopaenia: a randomized clinical study’ in Clinical Rehabilitation, Vol. 24, pp 1080-1090

11. Escalante, Y., Saavedra, J.M., Garcia-Hermoso, A., et al (2010) ‘Physical exercise and reduction of pain in adults with lower limb osteoarthritis: A systematic review’ in Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, Vol. 23, pp175-186

12. Field, T., Diego, M. & Hernandez-Reif, M. (2010) ‘ Tai chi/yoga effects on anxiety, heartrate, EEG and math computations’ in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, Vol. 16, Issue 4, pp 235-238

13. Field, T., (2011) ‘Tai Chi research review’ in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice’, Vol. 17, Issue 3, pp 141-146

13B. Foulds, S. (2013) ‘Still fighting the battle: an insight into how the practice of Tai Chi and QiGong helped me over the years and has had a positive effect on my health’ in Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts, Issue 43, pp 18-19

14. Hall, A.M., Maher, C.G., Lam, P., et al (2011) ‘Tai chi exercise for treatment of pain and disability in people with persistent low back pain: A randomized controlled trial’ in Arthritis Care and Research, Vol. 63, Issue 11, pp 1576-1583

15. Hoffman-Smith, K.A., Ma, A., Yeh, C-T., et al (2009) ‘The Effect of Tai Chi in Reducing Anxiety in an Ambulatory Population’ in The Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, Vol. 6, Issue 1

16. Jahnke, R.A., Larkley, L.K. & Rogers, C. (2010) ‘Dissemination and Benefits of a Replicable Tai Chi and Qigong Program for Older Adults’ in Geriatric Nursing, Vol. 31, Issue 4, pp 272-280

17. Kasai, J.Y.T., Busse, A.L., Magaldi, R.M., et al (2010) ‘Effects of Tai Chi Chuan on cognition of elderly women with mild cognitive impairment’ in Einstein, Vol. 8, Issue 1, pp 40-45

18. Kim, H-D., Kim, T-Y., Jae H.D. & Son, S-T. (2011) ‘The Effects of Tai Chi Based Exercise on Dynamic Postural Control of Parkinson’s Disease Patients while Initiating Gait’ in Journal of Physical Therapy Science, Vol. 23, Issue 2, pp265-270

19. Lee, L.Y.K., Lee, D.T.F. & Woo, J. (2009) ‘Tai Chi and Health-Related Quality of Life in Nursing Home Residents’ in Journal of Nursing Scholarship, Vol. 41, Issue 1, pp 35-43

20. Li, F., McAuley, E., Harmer, P., et al (2001) ‘Tai Chi Enhances Self-efficacy and Exercise Behaviour in Older Adults’ in Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, Vol. 9, pp 161-171

21. Li, L. & Manor, B., (2010) ‘Long Term Tai Chi Exercise Improves Physical Performance Among People with Peripheral Neuropathy’ in The American Journal of Chinese Medicine, Vol. 38, Issue 3, pp 449-459

21B. Moor, S. (2013) ‘The internal athlete: fascia and whole-body movement’ in Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts, Issue 43, pp 20-22

22. Palasuwan, A., Suksom, D., Margaritis, I., et al (2011) ‘Effects of Tai Chi Training on Antioxidant Capacity in Pre- and Postmenopausal Women’, in Journal of Aging Research

23. Palumbo, M.V., Wu, G., Shaner-McRae, H., et al (2012) ‘Tai Chi for older nurses: A workplace wellness pilot study’ in Applied Nursing Research, Vol. 25, Issue 1, pp 54-59

24. Reid-Arndt, S.A., Matsuda, S. & Cox, C.R. (2012) ‘Tai Chi effects on neuropsychological, emotional and physical functioning following cancer treatment: A pilot study’ in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, Vol. 18, Issue 1, pp 26-30

24B. Robinson, N., Lorenc, A., Mian, A. & Madge, S. (2013) ‘Cystic Fibrosis – caring for adults through Tai Chi – a study’
http://www.tracielawlortrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/CF-CATS-report-FINAL-correct-refs.pdf

25. Selfridge, N.J. (2010) ‘Tai Chi for Fibromyalgia: Marshalling the Art of Movement Against Pain’ in Alternative Medicine Alert, Vol. 13, Issue, 11, p126

26. ‘Tai Chi Helps Relieve Depression in People Over 60’ in Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter, Vol. 29, Issue 5, pp 1-2

27. Taylor-Piliae, R.E. & Coull, B.M. (2011) ‘Community-based Yang-style Tai Chi is safe and feasible in chronic stroke: a pilot study’ in Clinical Rehabilitation, Vol. 26, Issue 2, pp121-131

28. Toda, M., Den, R., Hasegawa-Ohira, M. & Morimoto, K. (2011) ‘Influence of personal patterns of behaviour on the effects of Tai Chi: a pilot study’ in Environmental Health & Preventative Medicine, Vol. 16, Issue 1, pp 61-64

29. Tousignant, M., Corriveau, H., Roy, P-M., et al (2012) ‘The effect of supervised Tai Chi intervention compared to a physiotherapy program on fall-related clinical outcomes: a randomized clinical trial’ in Disability & Rehabilitation, Vol. 34, Issue ¾, pp 196-201

30. Uhlig, T., Fongen, C., Steen, E., et al (2010) ‘Exploring Tai Chi in rheumatoid arthritis: a quantitative and qualitative study’ in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, Vol. 11, Issue 43

31. Wang, M-Y & An, L-G. (2011) ‘Effects of 12 weeks’ Tai Chi Chuan practice on the immune function of female college students who lack physical exercise’ in Biology of Sport, Vol. 28, Issue 1, pp 45-49

32. Yan, J.H. (1998) ‘Tai Chi Practice Improves Senior Citizens’ Balance and Arm Movement Control’ in Journal of Ageing and Physical Activity, Vol. 6, pp 271-284

33. Young, R.W. (2012) ‘The Benefits of Training Are Clear’ in Black Belt, Vol. 50, Issue 2, p74

8 thoughts on “Health Benefits of Tai Chi

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  2. Very interesting. Got a hospital appointment next week so may talk the doctor about it, if i remember!!!!! My memory really sucks when i am tired and in pain. So basically all the time!!

    • Hi Lou’, the gentle exercise is great for a crucial part of chronic pain treatment. Of course, it always helps massively if we actually find something that we enjoy, though!

      Cor, I know what you mean about the memory thing, it’s really weird trying to adjust to losing a beloved brain! Hope the doc’s appointment goes well, love and hugs from me, x

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