Uncovering Tai Chi’s Health Benefits

TaiChiReady for a new workout routine? Tai chi combines the benefits of meditation, yoga, strength training and more.

Tai chi has been used for centuries as a physical practice meant to center your focus and move energy (or “chi”) through the body. Its modern-day application offers a wealth of benefits—it can strengthen and tone muscles, reduce blood pressure, improve balance and coordination, and encourage relaxation.

“Tai chi is a healing practice,” says Dr. Brad Jacobs, MD, and chair of Pharmaca’s Integrative Health Advisory Board. “It’s more refined than just going for a run because you’re moving your body in a way that requires more focus and coordination. It’s more of a mind-body experience.”

So how does tai chi work, exactly? At its roots it’s a Chinese martial art that involves 108 different movements. Tai chi classes are most often taught at martial arts schools, and novices begin by learning sets of 21 movements at a time. At many schools, the practice will also include stretching and strength building with each session, making it feel like more of a workout.

“You’d be surprised by how much physical condition and aerobic capacity you have when you do tai chi,” says Dr. Jacobs. “The stamina that you build from doing this practice is remarkable.”

Health benefits
Tai chi has been shown to decrease the rate of cognitive decline in seniors and can help maintain bone density as we age. Aging adults will also find that it gives them a better sense of stability and balance—and thus more confidence, says Dr. Jacobs.

Tai chi can also speed recovery after a stroke since it guides you through movements meant to strengthen both sides of the body. Generally, though, tai chi helps move energy through your meridians, clearing blockages that can impair overall health and wellbeing.

Because of its health benefits, Dr. Jacob recommends his patients practice every day, if only for 15 minutes. “Ideally you would go to a class 2-3 times a week, then practice at home on the other days,” he says. “You’ll learn a lot more, and you’ll progress much more quickly.”

Moving meditation
One of the other reasons Dr. Jacobs likes to recommend tai chi is because it’s a moving meditation. “Since you’re moving, you have to focus on what you’re doing so you’re less likely to have your mind wander,” he says. During sitting meditation, it can be a lot harder to keep your focus, he says.

“Go find people practicing in a park,” suggests Dr. Jacobs. You’ll even in find people doing it in Central Park in the winter.” And at the end, you feel refreshed and energized, he says, and you get to enjoy the outdoors.

Want to try it at home? Dr. Jacobs recommends checking out the YouTube series Tai Chi Silk Reeling: Home Practice by Sifu Sam Sun.