When you think of exercise, what comes to mind? Sweat. Heavy breathing. Sore muscles. Tai chi offers none of that. Instead, it offers focus, coordination and pain-free motions, along with numerous health benefits.
Tai chi is a Chinese martial art that has been around for hundreds of years. Through slow, gentle movements and a focus on weight transfers and posture, it builds muscle strength, increases flexibility and improves balance — key components of fitness.
“When you’re doing martial arts, you’re exerting a force and absorbing a force. It’s this back and forth motion,” says Kathy Mercuris, P.T., D.H.S., associate professor of physical therapy at Des Moines University and certified Tai Chi for Arthritis and Fall Prevention instructor. “Tai Chi has its basis in trying to harmonize the life forces. It combines controlled martial arts movements with mindfulness, breathing and focus.”
Each movement flows into the next, so your body is in constant motion. There are a variety of postures, but none are too taxing on the body. The slow, focused motions and deep breathing are why tai chi is often called “meditation in motion.”
This low-impact exercise is a safe option for older adults who want to stay active. Evidence supports that tai chi is effective in relieving arthritis, preventing falls and improving posture and balance, says Mercuris. That’s a big reason why tai chi has become popular in wellness centers and among seniors across the United States.
The health benefits extend beyond the older population, however. Tai chi also lowers blood pressure, improves gait, increases range of motion and boosts self-esteem. Its emphasis on mindfulness and breathing promotes relaxation and reduces stress. A growing body of research shows people with chronic medical conditions such as cancer, heart failure, Parkinson’s disease and stroke can achieve a higher quality of life by regularly practicing tai chi.
“In the United States, there’s this perception that tai chi is an ‘old person’ exercise,” Mercuris says. “If you look at the rest of the world, children, teens and young adults are all doing tai chi. It’s an exercise you can practice throughout your lifetime and experience health benefits.”