The mental and physical benefits of Tai Chi make it a worthy addition to your workout routine.
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Tai Chi has been around for centuries, but it seems to be having a moment. Pinterest included it in its top 100 trends for 2018, noting a 189 percent increase in searches. A growing interest in the practice only seems natural since more and more people are including mental health in their fitness goals. Sure, if you thrive on quick, explosive workouts, the slow movements of Tai Chi might seem like a complete joke. But in reality, it's anything but.
Research suggests that Tai Chi provides amazing mind and body benefits. And if you pack your week with intense training sessions, all the more reason to add Tai Chi into the mix. It improves your body awareness, which is why many dancers and athletes use Tai Chi for cross training, says Peter Wayne, Ph.D., director of the Tree of Life Tai Chi Center and associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
"[When practicing Tai Chi], you're really paying attention to how the pieces of your body connect efficiently," Wayne says. "In that sense, it's a nice addition to other exercises, because that awareness may prevent injury." (Related: How to Stay Fit and Sane When You're Injured)
Still not sold? Read on for more reasons why Tai Chi well worth your time.
What Is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art that originated in China anywhere from a few hundred to over a thousand years ago. It's categorized as an "internal" martial art since it's all about harnessing your spiritual and mental energy. Today, many people do Tai Chi solely for its health benefits—learning Tai Chi as self-defense takes years of instruction since you have to overcome your impulse to fight aggression with aggression. The practice is colloquially shortened to "Tai Chi," meaning "supreme ultimate": the supreme force in Chinese philosophy. "Chuan," meaning "fist," defines the practice as a martial art. Together, "fist of the supreme alternate."
The Mental Benefits of Tai Chi
By now you're probs well-versed in the many health benefits associated with meditation. Tai Chi is like meditation on wheels, so naturally, it shares in many of those perks. A meta-analysis of 40 studies on Tai Chi published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found a reduction of stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms and improved self-esteem with regular Tai Chi practice. (Not to cause alarm, but stress is actually killing American women.)
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The Physical Benefits of Tai Chi
A common misconception about Tai Chi is that it's not legit exercise, according to Robert Etherington, president of the Tai Chi Foundation and teacher at the New York School of Tai Chi Chuan. He encountered that belief early on; when Etherington took his first class, a group of karate students walked through and one shouted "Boring!" he tells Shape. But the slow, drawn-out motions of Tai Chi are part of what makes it so worthwhile.
"There are a lot of things you can't feel when you're moving fast. That's not to say that a slow-paced workout is better, but it's certainly an important complement," Wayne says. After all, everyone can benefit from working on balance and flexibility, two things Tai Chi helps with. (Try this barre workout to improve your balance.)
Since Tai Chi is accessible to all fitness levels, it's stereotyped as an "old person" workout. And the fact that most research about Tai Chi only looks at older adult participants probably doesn't help. "We don't know a lot about how Tai Chi impacts younger people: children, teenagers, young adults," Wayne says. "There's a deficit of research in this area." But the studies that do include younger subjects show promise. In a study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, college students who tried Tai Chi for three months reported that they felt an improvement in physical and mental health.
One of the most common focuses of Tai Chi research is its effect on bone health. A lot of research suggests that people who practice Tai Chi have stronger bones, and bone health is key no matter your age. Exercising from a young age can set you up for better bone health down the road, according to the International Osteoporosis Foundation. (Another study found Tai Chi can reduce osteoarthritis pain.)
What to Expect from Tai Chi Classes
If you sign up for a Tai Chi class in the U.S., you'll most likely be learning the Yang style of Tai Chi. One of five major styles, it originated from the Yang family in China. During each class, you'll perform the same "form" or sequence of continuous movement. "Every time you do a particular form, it's the same sequence," Etherington explains. "You just do it a little more slowly or you can emphasize certain principles, such as balance and smoothness and continuous movement."
You can locate studios through the Tai Chi Foundation or American Tai Chi Association. As with any workout, don’t expect immediate mastery. It's not always easy to overcome the impulse to fidget and it can take weeks to start getting results. "Most of the research that's been done on Tai Chi has been based on 12-week, 24-week, or 6-month programs, and that's where we see benefits happening," Wayne says. "But research supports that you can see benefits in as little as 12 weeks with a good program and teachers."