Tai Chi has many health benefits both physiological and psychological. Unlike medical
treatments, the correct practice of Tai Chi has no harmful side effects. Within the research
literature there is great variation about what actually constitutes the intervention; “Tai Chi
Practice” in terms of frequency and amount. The intervention “Tai Chi Practice” is
minimally described one hour a week for only 8 weeks before testing outcomes. Yet in other
studies one hour of daily practice for five years was the intervention that was tested as “Tai
Chi Practice”(Lan, 2008a). There is also variation in the research literature about whether
Tai Chi is just a form of exercise or whether, via the practice of ‘mindfulness’, it also serves
a deeper spiritual purpose. ‘Mindfulness’ means keeping the mind in the moment and
mindfully thinking about the movements of the body and the movements of the breath.
The ‘mindful’ practice of tai chi may be further enhanced by the use of appropriate peaceful
music during the session. Peaceful music stimulates the right side of the brain and helps
bring about a relaxation response thus making it easier to stop the ‘chattering thoughts’
that come from the left side of the brain (Tsang, 2008). It is our view that Tai Chi will be
most effective and deliver physical, psychological and spiritual benefits if it is practised
mindfully at least 3 times a week for at least 30 minutes per session. This article briefly
outlines the known benefits of Tai Chi and relates that to the contemporary research
literature that was found by searching Medline: the premier medical data base.
Tai Chi is beneficial for aerobic capacity, weight management, strength and flexibility in
older adults (Lan, 2008). Tai Chi improves strength and balance which are key factors in
preventing falls. This finding is particularly important for people with rheumatoid or
osteoarthritis where enhancements in strength, mobility and balance are essential to
maintaining independence and quality of life. Falls are the major cause of fractures in
older people. These falls often are a major cause of acute hospital admission with the
attendant complications of bed rest, surgical interventions and hospital acquired infections.
Fractures also cause loss of mobility and often loss of independence which can lead to
nursing home admission and premature death. Tai Chi can be used in the recuperative
phase after illness. In a trial comparing Tai Chi psycho-social support group following
breast cancer treatment, Tai Chi was found to enhance aerobic capacity, muscular strength,
flexibility and the person’s experience of their quality of life. (Innes, 2008; Lan, 2008;
Schlagal, 2008; Wang, 2008a)
The major risk factors for cardiovascular disease are beneficially modified by the practice of
Tai Chi. Exercise capacity is enhanced, mean blood pressure is reduced; there is a
reduction in all the detrimental blood lipids (triglycerides, cholesterol and low density
lipoprotein) and blood sugar levels are also reduced. Tai Chi has a beneficial effect on Type
2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. For example, after 8 weeks of Tai Chi exercise blood
glucose levels decrease significantly. The number and effectiveness of insulin receptor sites
also increased. This means that insulin’s action at the cellular level was enhanced so that
glucose more easily entered the cells to produce energy and blood sugar levels are naturally
maintained within the normal range. (Lan, 2008; Wang, 20008b; Zang, 2008).
Tai Chi improves mental health and wellness. Firstly sleep quality and quantity are
improved by regular practice. This was demonstrated in a study comparing the effect of Tai
Chi with health education for two groups of older adults who complained on insomnia.
Subjects who practiced Tai Chi reported improved sleep quality and quantity whereas
subjects in the health education group experienced no change (Irwin, 2008). Tai Chi has a
beneficial effect on depression. This knowledge is based on 12 randomized controlled trials
which showed that both mindful and non-mindful forms of Tai Chi are effective in reducing
depressive symptoms (Tsang, 2008). Tai Chi helps people to manage stress more
adaptively. Stress is a potent immune-suppressant which leaves the body less defended
against infections and cancers. Tai Chi improves immunological functioning (McCain,
2008). This benefit may be mediated via Tai Chi’s effect on stress by creating a relaxation
response which in turn enhances the body’s immune functioning.
When considering the research evidence for Tai Chi it is not as strong as that which is
available for most medical drugs: that does not mean the benefits are not there. It only
means that the benefits are more difficult to prove. The difficulty with producing strong
research evidence of the beneficial effect of Tai Chi is that no one owns ‘Tai Chi’ there is no
corporation and there are no real profits to be generated by anyone. Indeed Tai Chi
masters are generally paid only modestly and most practitioners pay only small sums for
lessons. Indeed most practice occurs independently; it cost nothing and it cann, and should
not, be controlled. By comparison, drug trials are paid for by multi-national drug companies
who have a profit motive and can afford to be multi-site with thousands of participants.
Further, the degree of control available over a drug (dose, frequency, storage etc) is not
ethical to try to use on people who practise Tai Chi. The research on the health benefits of
Tai Chi have, therefore, mostly been done with small study groups. Even so, the majority
studies find statistically significant results of the health benefits without finding any
detrimental effects. Larger studies, with greater researcher control, would be good but may
not be forthcoming due to the limitations already mentioned. One of the great advantages
of Tai Chi over medical treatments, however, is that Tai Chi is safe. Safety depends upon
the person having been taught the postures and moves correctly and that each person
works within the comfort limits of their own body. In conclusion, Tai Chi practiced at least
three times a week for at least 30 minutes per session has the following benefits:
improvements in balance, strength, flexibility, aerobic capacity, type 2 diabetes and
metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular risk factors and mental wellness including sleep and a
reduction in depressive symptoms.
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