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A Healthy Dose of Tai Chi

Tai Chi may look like some strange type of martial arts that old people do in the park, but the benefits for people of all ages and health are astounding.

I'd seen the photos and videos of people practicing what looked like martial arts in the park, but it didn't look like my type of exercise. Sure, I've taken yoga classes, Pilates, Zumba, and even tried CrossFit for a while. But, it wasn't until I read the research that I was willing to give Tai Chi a try.

In 2010, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, a disorder that is characterized by fatigue and chronic body pain. One of the first pieces of advice that doctors give patients with Fibromyalgia is to exercise. This is advice that is typically met with blank stares and a desire to punch the doctor in his face. If I hurt all over how do you expect me to exercise and why would you? But, I tried. The more I tried the more I hurt. However, in researching my condition I found several studies that indicated that people who performed Tai Chi regularly saw a reduction in their symptoms. So, I decided it was worth a try.

Eventually, I found a cheap Tai Chi video with an instructor that didn't annoy me. The movements seemed simple enough and reminded me somewhat of doing yoga while standing. Tai Chi involves stretching, but not more than is comfortable, and movement. Instead of moving into a pose and holding it you continue to move from position to position. What I discovered amazed me. For the first time, I was able to complete a workout and actually feel refreshed rather than worn out.

What is Tai Chi?

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese exercise that is both a form of martial arts and meditative movement. In research, Tai Chi is often used interchangeably with Qigong. Qigong is a series of movements focused on balancing the flow of energy that enhances the function of the body and the mind. There are many forms of Qigong and Tai Chi and even those used in the research vary quite a bit. However, most forms used in the research are what are considered "short form" movements that are easier to learn and master, while at the same time providing a positive benefit.

Tai Chi is a low-impact non-weight bearing exercise that can be done in both sitting and standing postures. As a result, Tai Chi can be performed by people at most any ability level, including those with many disabilities that prevent other types of exercise.

What are the benefits of Tai Chi?

A 2010 review of previous studies found that the health benefits of Tai Chi (and/or Qigong) are many. The reviewed studies found that Tai Chi and Qigong decreases the risk of bone loss in post-menopausal women, improves cardiovascular and pulmonary outcomes leading to improved aerobic conditioning, decreases chronic pain leading to improved movement and functionality for those with arthritis, improves pain and fatigue among those with Fibromyalgia, and improves balance, flexibility, and strength for both healthy and ill individuals.

Improved Strength. Tai Chi and Qigong can improve strength without the need for weights or other equipment. Once you learn the movements Tai Chi can be performed anywhere at any time allowing you to increase strength without equipment.

Improved Balance. Sixteen studies have found that regular Tai Chi exercise improves balance and reduces the risk of falling among at-risk individuals. Both Qigong and Tai Chi were shown to improve balance among healthy adults as well as those suffering from Muscular Dystrophy and Parkinson's disease.

Aerobic Conditioning. Multiple studies found a significant reduction in blood pressure for those who regularly perform Tai Chi or Qigong. Two studies found that Tai Chi reduces blood pressure more than aerobic exercise. Studies also showed reduced heart rates and improved biomarkers of heart health.

Weight loss. Multiple studies have shown that regular Tai Chi can result in reduced BMI (Body Mass Index) and waist circumference.

Improved Mood. A large number of studies have assessed Tai Chi's effect on overall psychological health. These studies have consistently found that Tai Chi decreases anxiety and improves depression.

The benefits of Tai Chi seem endless and it seems quite amazing that a simple exercise that anyone can do can have so many benefits. Whether you are healthy or chronically ill Tai Chi can be beneficial if practiced regularly. There are many Tai Chi and Qigong videos available online, and while you may not like one another may be perfect for you. Find an instructor you enjoy and give Tai Chi and start enjoying the benefits.

Source: Jahnke, R., Larkey, L., Rogers, C., Etnier, J., & Lin, F. (2010). A Comprehensive Review of Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi. American Journal of Health Promotion : AJHP, 24(6), e1-e25. http://doi.org/10.4278/ajhp.081013-LIT-248

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