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Tai Chi: Exercise for Mind and Body

Stroll through a Chinese city early in the morning, and you’re likely to see groups of people exercising in the park. You’ll see them moving through a series of slow, graceful movements. As their bodies flow from one exercise to the next, their minds are focused only on their deep, relaxed breathing.

This ancient mind-body exercise is known as tai chi (pronounced: ty CHEE), and you don't have to live in China to benefit from it. According to a recent National Heath Survey, more than 2 million Americans are practicing tai chi right here at home.

Tai chi is called a mind-body type of exercise because it combines meditation, focused breathing, and physical movement. Because it’s also a low-impact exercise, it may be particularly well suited for older adults, but it’s a beneficial exercise for people of all ages.

Tai chi developed in China as a type of martial art. No one is exactly sure of its origin, but legend has it that it was started by a Taoist monk named Chang San-Feng, who developed 13 exercises based on the movements of animals. Today tai chi is used to promote fitness, meditation, balance, breathing, and well-being.

Why people practice tai chi

Tai chi is a good aerobic exercise. Studies show that you can raise your heart rate to about 50 to 75 percent of its maximum rate during a tai chi session. But fitness is not the only benefit of tai chi. Here are other reasons to do tai chi:

  • To improve balance, flexibility, and coordination

  • To relieve pain and stiffness

  • To relax the mind and relieve stress

  • To improve breathing

  • To achieve an overall sense of wellness

What research shows about the benefits of tai chi

According to Chinese philosophy, tai chi works by using opposing forces within your body (a concept called yin and yang) to release your vital energy source, called your qi. Practicing tai chi may teach you better balance and get your qi flowing. Although it's hard to study yin and yang and qi, many studies do support the benefits of tai chi.

Research into tai chi has suggested many possible plusses:

  • Prevention of falls in older adults

  • Strengthening of the immune system

  • Reduction of high blood pressure

  • Improvement of  cardiovascular function

  • Improved breathing in patients with chronic obstructive lung disease

  • Reduction of pain and stiffness of osteoarthritis

  • Reduction of pain in people with fibromyalgia

Getting started

If it sounds like tai chi is something you might like to try, look for a tai chi class near you. Keep in mind that tai chi instructors do not have to be licensed, and training programs vary. You might want to ask around for a recommendation or try a class before you sign up. Ask potential tai chi instructors about their training and experience.

Tai chi is generally considered a low-risk exercise that’s both safe and enjoyable. If you have any physical or medical problems, talk with your health care provider before starting any exercise program. And remember, although tai chi has many benefits, it’s not a substitute for conventional medical care.