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What Happens in Tai Chi Class continued...

This movement may last only two minutes or so; during the hour-long class, participants will complete at least 20 different sets of movements, says Morrill.

Someone with arthritis should not try learning tai chi from a video or DVD, she adds. A class setting, with qualified instructor who has worked with people with arthritis, is essential. "If someone has severe arthritis in the left knee, they may not be able to do moves like someone who has a light case of arthritis. It's the instructor's job to modify movement to make it as safe and painless as possible for each student ... to select moves that are most appropriate."

Also, there's the camaraderie that comes from a class, Morrill tells WebMD. "People with arthritis tend to not get out much, but tai chi classes let them realize there are others in the same situation, so friendships develop, people support each other, they find other people they can share skills with. One might do the grocery shopping because the arthritis in her legs isn't too bad - and her friend does the cooking."

Gain Back 8 Years of Youth

According to legend, "if you meditate and do tai chi 100 days in a row, you gain back eight years of youth," says Morrill.

While many of today's tai chi movements have roots in martial arts, the goal is indeed therapeutic. Progress is measured in terms of coordination, strength, balance, flexibility, breathing, digestion, emotional balance, and a general sense of well-being.

Tai chi and other types of mindfulness-based practices "are intended to maintain muscle tone, strength, and flexibility, and perhaps even spiritual aspects like mindfulness - focusing in the moment, focusing away from the pain," says Raymond Gaeta, MD, director of pain management services at Stanford Hospital & Clinics.

Parag Sheth, MD, assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York, saw the popularity of tai chi on a visit to China 20 years ago. "We saw it every morning - thousands of people in the park doing tai chi, all of them elderly," he tells WebMD.

"There's logic in how tai chi works," Sheth says. "Tai chi emphasizes rotary movements -- turning the body from side to side, working muscles that they don't use when walking, building muscle groups they are not used to using. If they have some strength in those support muscles - the rotators in the hip -- that can help prevent a fall."

The slow, controlled movements help older people feel secure doing tai chi, he adds. "Also, they learn to bend on one leg -- to control that movement - which is something you don't get to practice very often," says Sheth. "That's important because, as we get older and more insecure, we tend to limit our movements and that limits certain muscles from getting used. When people strengthen those muscles slowly, when they find their balance, they learn to trust themselves more."

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