At first glance, tai chi doesn’t seem all that remarkable. There’s no heavy lifting, no charging up sharp inclines at breakneck speed. But don’t be deceived: The practice — a combination of slow, graceful, choreographed movements and meditation that came to our shores from China around the 1940s — has been scientifically linked to a list of live-longer, live-better health and fitness benefits, many of which have particular relevance as we age.
Chief among the benefits is tai chi’s ability to improve balance and prevent falls. “When you’re practicing the movements, you’re shifting your weight from one foot to the other to maintain balance,” says Michael Irwin, a professor of behavioral sciences and director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at University of California Los Angeles. “By doing (tai chi), you become more aware of the position of your body in space — which is something we become less aware of as we age.”
Tai chi practitioners also learn to "sink into the earth and feel the connection with their feet,” which can help them negotiate uneven surfaces, explains international tai chi fitness expert Scott Cole. A 2015 study published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism found the exercise can also help with osteoarthritis, the most common joint disease in midlife, by improving mobility, reducing stiffness, and helping ease pain.
But tai chi, believed to be a centuries-old adaptation of martial arts moves according to the precepts of Chinese medicine, does more than just loosen up your limbs. “When people practice tai chi, there’s a decrease of stress hormones produced by the sympathetic nervous system, which can help lower heart rate and blood pressure,” says Irwin. “That’s similar to the kinds of gains that happen immediately after engaging in more strenuous exercise.” What’s more, by going through the motions with knees slightly bent, you’re working the largest muscle groups in the body — the glutes and quadriceps — which are the first to atrophy as we age.
Tai chi’s soothing effects on the sympathetic nervous system also offer health advantages. A study in the Journal of American Geriatrics found evidence that the ancient art also seems to boost the immune systems of older adults, helping them fend off the viruses that lead to shingles. (In fact, the levels of immunity were comparable to that of people 30 years younger.) And research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that older people had an improved response to the flu vaccine after practicing tai chi.
Where to Go for the Flow
Interested in learning to practice? Taking a class is a good way to begin. “An instructor can monitor you and make sure you’re doing the moves correctly,” says Ruth Taylor-Piliae, associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Nursing. What’s more, practicing in a studio with like-minded people will provide motivation and eliminate distractions.
Inquire about classes at a local YMCA, adult community center, community college, or hospital. The Arthritis Foundation or the Tai Chi for Health Institute can help find instructors in specific communities. Another way to unearth an expert: Ask an acupuncturist. “Tai Chi has a holistic element,” says Cole, “so they may know of instructors in your area — or may teach tai chi themselves.”
Because it’s low impact, tai chi can be adapted to any fitness level. Some classes may focus more on the martial arts’ aspect; others, stress management. For those with limited mobility, sitting tai chi — yes, there is such a thing — may be an option. “Be a shopper,” says Bill Douglas, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tai Chi and Qigong. “Interview several teachers and tell them where you’re coming from physically and what your goals are. And ask permission to observe a class before committing.”
Another way to get a sampling: Check out World Tai Chi Day, held the last Saturday in April each year in cities across the U.S. You’ll find exhibitions and teach-ins — all free. “It’s a good way to connect with local teachers,” says Douglas, founder of the event. (Go to WorldTaiChiDay.org, click on Events, then type in your state to find a gathering near you.)
Another way to begin practice in the privacy of your home is with a DVD. Some beginner-friendly bestsellers: The Anthology of Tai Chi and Qigong: The Prescription for the Future; Discover Tai Chi for Balance and Mobility; and Tai Chi for Older Adults. Regardless of the venue for practice, tuning in is definitely worth a try, assures Cole, who has turned his students into believers: “Your body will wake up like never before.”