Health Benefits, Tai Chi Linked

New research from Tufts finds the ancient practice of tai chi may actually help improve health.

Boston [04-28-04] The two thousand year old practice of tai chi – a combination of martial arts movements and deep breathing – has been used for generations in China to release energy and negative feelings. But an effort by Tufts to review the body of research on tai chi finds that the ancient practice may also be linked with a variety of other health benefits – from flexibility to cardiovascular health.

Using 47 studies on tai chi in English and Chinese medical journals, Tufts’ Dr. Chenchen Wang – a physician at Tufts-New England Medical Center – analyzed the effect of the practice on healthy people as well as those with assorted health conditions.

“Overall, these studies reported that long-term tai chi had favorable effects on the promotion of balance control, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness and reduced the risk of falls in the elderly,” said Wang, an assistant professor of medicine at Tufts. “Benefit was also found for balance, strength and flexibility in older subjects; and pain, stress and anxiety in healthy subjects.”

Wang and colleagues concluded that tai chi is generally a safe exercise, and one that may be most beneficial for older adults, including those who suffer from arthritis, high blood pressure, multiple sclerosis and other conditions.

“The sickly elderly who participated in the program also showed improved balance, strength, and flexibility and fewer falls,” reported the Jerusalem Post.

While the study – funded in part by the National Institutes of Health – provided insight into links between tai chi and improved health, it left some unanswered questions, including which mechanisms were responsible for tai chi’s apparent health benefits.

“Despite its popularity, the biological mechanisms and clinical effects of tai chi are not well understood,” Wang and colleagues wrote. “The long-term effects of tai chi practice are still unknown, and there is insufficient information to recommend tai chi to patients with chronic conditions.”

Tai Chi for posture and back pain

Tai Chi is a form of exercise that has recently been gaining popularity as a way to relieve and/or manage back pain and neck pain. It is often easy to associate Tai Chi with groups of people in parks or gyms moving slowly and deliberately in synchronization. These people are using the same Tai Chi principles and movements created in ancient China and still practiced all around the world as a healing exercise.

Are there any health benefits from tai chi exercises?

Tai chi, the slow, graceful Chinese exercise program that is sometimes called a "moving meditation," was originally created centuries ago as a martial art. It does appear to have some health benefits, though rigorous studies are hard to come by.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, an arm of the National Institutes of Health ( notes, "It is not fully known what changes occur in the body during tai chi, whether they influence health, and if so, how." But so many Americans now practice the slow-moving exercise - 1.3 percent, according to a 2002 survey - that the government is now funding a number of studies to see what health benefits tai chi may hold.

Among the best-documented health effects for tai chi is its ability to improve balance, said biologist Peter Wayne, director of Tai Chi Research Programs from Harvard Medical School's Division for Research and Education in Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies. In a systematic review of the published literature, Wayne and his colleagues found that 20 of 24 studies support the hypothesis that tai chi improves balance.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society found that tai chi can also boost immunity and protect older adults against shingles, a painful disease caused by reactivation of the chicken pox virus, which can linger in the body for decades. In this study, 112 adults age 59 to 86 were randomly assigned to tai chi or health education classes for 16 weeks.

Those who got tai chi had nearly twice as much immunity against the chicken pox virus (all participants had had chicken pox) measured by a blood test, as well as a stronger immune response to the chicken pox vaccine.

Tai chi has also been shown in a number of studies to lower blood pressure in people with hypertension.

But whether tai chi is any better for health than some other mind-body practices such as yoga and meditation remains to be seen, said Wayne. Tai chi teachers are not licensed by state boards, so a word of caution: If you are new to tai chi, check out several teachers and pick one with the most experience.


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