Q: It seems like more and more people are trying Tai Chi. Does this kind of slow exercise really have any health benefits?
A: Tai Chi (pronounced tie-chee), which originated in China as a martial art, is today practiced mostly as an exercise to promote balance and healing. Both Tai Chi and a similar activity called Qigong (pronounced chee-gung) include slow, flowing, dance-like motions and may also include sitting or standing meditation postures. These practices are often referred to as “moving meditation,” because as participants slowly move through the poses, they also focus on deep breathing and mental awareness.
A review of 67 randomized controlled trials of Tai Chi or Qigong concluded that these activities showed benefits after 8 to 12 weeks for heart health (especially blood pressure), bone health and balance (especially among those who were sedentary or at risk of falls). This analysis found the evidence for help with weight control inconclusive. The greatest overall benefit is seen when comparing those who practice Tai Chi or Qigong to people who are sedentary or do stretching exercise only.
Research is currently looking at how these gentle types of activity may benefit those who have obstacles to more demanding exercise, including people with osteoarthritis (the most common form of arthritis) of the knee and some cancer survivors. An analysis of studies on knee osteoarthritis shows short-term benefits reducing pain and stiffness and improving physical functioning. Studies of Tai Chi for cancer survivors so far have been small, but suggest improvements in anxiety, depression and fatigue. Physical benefit may vary with length of program, initial level of fitness and other factors.