February 14, 2022

Tai chi may help you live longer

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If you’ve been curious about the health benefits associated with this ancient Chinese movement practice, keep reading.

Tai chi (pronounced tie chee), is an ancient Chinese mind-body practice that involves moving the body slowly and gently, while breathing deeply and connecting with the inner and physical states. Mind-body exercises such as tai chi (often referred to as tai chi chuan), have been gaining popularity in recent years. Maybe this is because of the increasing research on the positive health effects of these gentler forms of exercise. There is even evidence that tai chi may help you live a longer, more vital life.

What are the health benefits of tai chi?

Practicing tai chi may benefit a variety of health issues, including:

  • Balance
  • Bone mineral density
  • Cancer quality of life
  • Cardiovascular and respiratory disease
  • Chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and other autoimmune conditions
  • Chronic lower back pain other pain management
  • Cognitive function
  • Orthopedic and neurological issues
  • Stroke and stroke risk factors
  • Parkinson’s, MS and other chronic conditions
  • Sleep disorders

In addition to all of the potential health benefits mentioned above, tai chi is suitable for people of all ages and in various health conditions, as it is low impact and places minimal stress on joints and muscles. It requires no special equipment or clothing, so it can be practiced almost anywhere, alone or with others.

How does tai chi work?

Harvard Women’s Health Watch calls tai chi “medication in motion.” It states that this mind-body practice can help treat or prevent many age-related health problems and may be the perfect activity for the rest of your life.

Once the basic dynamic movement principles and tai chi forms are learned from a qualified instructor, continuing to practice can be done on your own and at no cost. It can also be easily adapted for anyone, from the most fit to people confined to wheelchairs or recovering from surgery. In recent years, the practice has become more widely accepted in the U.S. as a complement to medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with aging. The May 2009 edition of Harvard Women’s Health Watch calls tai chi “medication in motion,” stating that this mind-body practice can help treat or prevent many age-related health problems and may be the perfect activity for the rest of your life.

Cindy Hui-Lio, Ed.D., a ATCQA-certified tai chi instructor, has practiced tai chi for 30 years and taught tai chi and qigong at the Osher Center for Integrative Health at Vanderbilt for nine years. She also teaches tai chi at the Vanderbilt Blair School of Music, where she is an adjunct assistant professor. “Tai chi chuan enriches our lives and empowers us,” Hui-Lio explains. “Regular practice helps nurture and balance the dynamic relationship among turning inward, moving with ease as a unified being, and grounding the connection with self and others.”

Tips for getting started with a tai chi practice

  • The health benefits of tai chi are generally greatest if you begin before you develop a chronic illness or functional limitations.
  • Don’t be intimidated by the language. Names are given to various branches of tai chi in honor of people who devised the sets of movements. The name is less important than finding an approach that matches your interests and needs.
  • If you have a limiting musculoskeletal problem or medical condition, or if you take medications that can make you dizzy or lightheaded, check with your healthcare provider before starting tai chi.
  • Consider observing and taking a class.  Look for classes at your local YMCA, a senior center or a local community center. The Osher Center for Integrative Health at Vanderbilt offers a variety of tai chi classes, including one that focuses on balance, as well as beginner and advanced classes and private tai chi lessons for particular health issues.

How to maximize the benefits of tai chi

A special report by the Harvard Medical School, An Introduction to Tai Chi, includes some tips that can help you to get more out of a new or existing practice and reduce your risk of injury.

  • Enjoy it. Don’t worry about whether you are doing everything right. Don’t think too much about doing it perfectly. Enjoyment will deepen your practice.
  • Get grounded. Feel the ground with your feet. Release your weight into the ground and maintain good body alignment to promote stability and balance.
  • Take it slow. Moving slowly gives you time to sense your body’s position, uncover hidden tensions, and make postural modifications so that different parts of your body move more harmoniously together.
  • Obey the 70% rule. A key principle of Tai Chi is moderation in effort. This principle is referred to as the 70% rule; stay at about 70% of your effort, intensity, or range of motion.
  • Be mindful. As you move from side to side, do so in a mindful way. Can you feel the contact between your feet and the ground? Can you feel your body slowly relaxing as you breathe? Can you do all that without clenching your neck and jaw?
  • Move from your center. Imagine your head, torso and pelvis as a single column aligned over your legs and feet. All upper and lower body movements are integrated with the movement of this “column,” which includes the body’s center of gravity.
  • Be aware of your “inner ocean.” Keep the movements smooth and flowing, as if you were in a pool; the kind of movements that would create gentle waves instead of splashes.
  • Pace yourself.  Start with just 10 or 15 minutes and then gradually increase. Even five minutes most days of the week is better than doing nothing at all.
  • Be patient with your progress. No matter what type of exercise you do, it takes time to see changes. And with lower-intensity forms of exercise like tai chi, it may take even longer  to see physical changes like increased strength or flexibility. Look for improvements in everyday activities as a way to track
    your progress.

Healing and wellness

The Osher Center for Integrative Health at Vanderbilt focuses on whole health: body, mind and spirit. Osher offers scientifically proven complementary therapies, such as acupuncture and yoga, to work alongside conventional medical care.

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