In a previous article I mentioned the importance of movement and regular exercise for a healthy retirement and suggested Tai Chi as one possibility. I’ve received several questions about what Tai Chi is and “does it work” so I thought I’d write something to explain it a bit. The dance like moves of Tai Chi will, I’m sure be familiar to you but there is so much more to this art than just being yoga in motion or another form of meditation. Most people practice Tai Chi for the health benefits both physical and mental. There are lots of claimed benefits, most of which are true if Tai Chi is practiced regularly. When it’s all broken down this is a system of low impact, gentle exercise which helps with balance and flexibility without all the huffing and puffing of a gym or the need to repeatedly lift lumps of iron.
As a quick disclaimer, you should know that I’ve been a student of various martial arts since I was a teenager – I’m now in my 60’s. I practice Tai Chi as part of my martial arts training and I’m generally a fan of softer, more considered, arts.
You know yourself best but before undertaking any new form of physical exercise you should seek appropriate and competent medical advice. Nothing in the practice of Tai Chi should hurt or cause physical distress. If it does, STOP, because you’re either doing something wrong which your instructor can correct or doing too much for you.
What is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is a traditional martial art which has been practiced for centuries and while it is usually considered as “chinese” the reality is that there are now practitioners worldwide. Although there are Tai Chi competitions and it could well become an Olympic sport it is not usually considered competitive. Certainly the participant do not”fight” each other as in other martial arts although the pushing hands practice involves a partner.
There are five main styles of Tai Chi – Chen, Yang, Wu (Hao), Wu and Sun. All of these have a common lineage and can be considered part of the overall Kung Fu system. The practice emphasizes Yin and Yang or opposing elements which need to be kept in harmony. In this sense Kung Fu could be considered a “hard” style and Tai Chi “soft” although the real meanings are deeper and much more complex.
Tai Chi is taught and practiced as a series of forms or a set series of motions. These emphasize animal and bird movements which have quite beautiful names like “white crane spreads its wings”. The movements are combined with breathing exercises and often accompanied by music. Once the basic forms are learned the process becomes quite meditative and tranquil. To be done well, participants need to let go of other daily stresses and concentrate on the moment – hence the mindfulness and meditation comparisons.
Although done gently and slowly, doing the forms provides a surprising level of exercise. Much of this comes from the need to be controlled in movement and breathing to achieve the rhythm and balance of the form.
In summary, Tai Chi is practiced as a combined form of gentle physical exercise and stretching with mindfulness. As such it is suitable for all ages and levels of fitness but is particularly suited to those of more senior years who need to avoid injury causing impact exercise but still need to stay active.
The video below shows an expert demonstrating the grace and beauty that is Tai Chi. Be warned though, this level of expertise is well above most beginners or even quite experience practitioners but that shouldn’t stop you aspiring to these levels in time.
How is Tai Chi Good for you?
The benefits of regularly practicing Tai Chi come in two main categories – physical and mental. The physical is obvious. For those of us getting on a bit, any form of gentle exercise which keeps joints flexible and moving has benefits. Very much a use it or lose it situation. Not quite so obvious are benefits to bone density which come from exercise and improved balance from having better flexibility and more resilient strength.
The mental benefits are also quite real but are sometimes seen as pseudo-science by some. In our modern fast paced world stress is a major killer through increasing risk or heart attack and stroke. It is well-established that moderate exercise, several times a week reduces this. Tai Chi is a great way of taking that moderate exercise is all I’m proposing. In addition, because Tai Chi is often practiced as part of a club or class there is a social aspect to it all which helps people feel a sense of belonging and community.
It would appear that the modern fashion of mindfulness and wellness is something the Chinese have known and practiced for some centuries.
As you might expect the medical and research community has been looking into Tai Chi extensively to either prove or debunk the various claims. One Canadian study sums it all up for me:
“Conclusion: There is abundant evidence on the health and fitness effects of tai chi. Based on this, physicians can now offer evidence-based recommendations to their patients, noting that tai chi is still an area of active research, and patients should continue to receive medical follow-up for any clinical conditions.”
Is Tai Chi good for losing weight?
Well yes and no. If you think an hour’s Tai Chi per week will make up for a poor diet and gross over eating and drinking then “No” Tai Chi is not a silver bullet for losing weight. However, when practiced regularly – at least weekly – and combined with some other common sense measures then absolutely Tai Chi will assist with weight loss. For those that are very overweight or quite unfit, it has the added benefit of not stressing the body too much and causing other problems common when people start a new regime and get their aspirations and capabilities mix up.
Although difficult to directly attribute to Tai Chi alone, the weight loss also assist with blood pressure management, living or even curing type 2 diabetes and avoiding heart disease. People also simply feel better.
One piece of research into the obesity reducing benefits of Tai Chi produced some startling results which were published in The Lancet in December 2017. Chinese adults 50 years or older were recruited. Men had to have a waist circumference (WC) greater than or equal to 90 cm (35.4 inches) and women a WC of 80 cm (31.5 inches) or more. Participants were randomly assigned to either the control group (who received no intervention), the fitness group (who received 12-week of generic fitness intervention), or Tai Chi group (who received 12-week of Yang-style Tai Chi intervention [three sessions weekly]).
After the 12 weeks, Waist Circumference was decreased by about 2% in the Tai Chi group while it was increased by about 1% in both the fitness and control groups. The decrease in WC in the Tai Chi group was significantly larger than that of the control group. There were 48 participants in the Tai Chi group, 43 in the fitness group and 51 in the control group. The study concluded:
“A 12-week of Tai Chi training reduced central obesity indicated by the decrease in WC. The improvement in central obesity after Tai Chi training suggested that Tai Chi is a suitable exercise modality for older adults to manage central obesity, and thus to reduce the risk of associated diseases.”
( The Lancet Research Report: Effectiveness of Tai Chi training to alleviate metabolic syndrome in abdominal obese older adults: a randomised controlled trial December 2017)
What about Yoga – better than Tai Chi?
A fairly impossible question to answer. For me Tai Chi is better but that’s based on my age, sex and general lack of flexibility. For those a bit younger I suspect Yoga would work better. One of my Kung Fu instructors, a woman in her 20’s, delights in giving us yoga stretches and poses as part of her warm up for the class. Most of the young adults can manage this OK but I find that pretty tough.
I guess the real answer is that it doesn’t matter. As long as you are doing something that makes you move, gives you a stretch and raises the heart rate a bit, that has to be good for you. Like Tai Chi, yoga needs to be practiced regularly to have any real benefit. Go with what works for you – I’ll stick with Tai Chi as my body wasn’t meant to bend in the ways that some of the yoga poses seem to require.
How do I learn?
Tai Chi is typically taught in a class environment with a relatively small number of student – up to a couple of dozen. Classes are mixed by age and sex so Tai Chi is very suitable for couples and even grandparent and grandchildren. As the health benefits of Tai Chi have become more widely recognized, classes are being incorporated into the activity schedules of retirement homes and senior citizens clubs as part of their regular programmes. No special clothing is required but it is usually loose fitting long sports pants and a t-shirt or sweatshirt depending on the climate. Often clubs will have an optional uniform but that’s not actually required for the Tai Chi itself.
Beginners start with a shorter form often the 24 step form. Each instructor has their own style but the form is broken down into a few moves, usually no more than 6 which are repeated until you get them. In a typical class beginners are either taken aside or start a bit earlier to learn their bits then join the rest of the class to do as much as they’ve learned with the rest of the class. There is usually a bit of “fake it until you make it” aspect to that portion of a class. There is no blame or competitive culture in a class with all students there to help each other so don’t worry about making mistakes – you will and we all do.
Each class starts with some warm up exercises to loosen up and generally get ready for the class. At the end there is some kind of warm-down often in the form of some Qi Gong breathing exercises. If either of these elements are missing you should perhaps question the competence of the club and whether it is right for you.
For most people it will take a few months to learn their first form then years to become competent in it. Once you are happy with the basic form you will have the opportunity to learn longer forms some of which include weapons. Tai Chi weapons include long and short staff (walking stick), swords and even the fan. You can progress as far and as fast as you want although lots of people are happy to stick with the basic forms and perfect those.
If there is not a class near you or if clubs are not your thing, then you can practice in your own home and learn from videos and DVD. I personally found these a great help to supplement what I learned in class and to remember the moved week to week. I like the videos provided by Paul Lam which progress clearly step by step and allow me to pause while I practice what has just been gone through. I have included an example of one of his introductory lessons below and some of his videos are available in our shop.
Thank you for reading this far and I hope I have been able explain a little about what Tai Chi is as well as answering some of your questions about the physical and mental health benefits of Tai Chi. If you have any questions or comments please leave them below.
Thanks you again and good luck achieving the retirement you desire when you desire it.