Tai chi and qigong are two mind-body practices that originated in ancient China. Practiced widely in China for thousands of years, both tai chi and qigong have become popular in the West. This might be because people of almost any age or condition can learn them.
Large, clinical studies on the health benefits of tai chi and qigong are lacking. But many who practice tai chi and qigong report heightened feelings of well-being along with a variety of other health benefits. A few studies are beginning to support some of these claims.
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Tai chi is a type of low-impact, weight-bearing, and aerobic -- yet relaxing -- exercise. It began as a martial art. As it developed, it took on the purpose of enhancing physical and mental health. Practiced in a variety of styles, tai chi involves slow, gentle movements, deep breathing, and meditation. The meditation is sometimes called "moving meditation."
Some people believe that tai chi improves the flow of energy through the body, leading to better wellness and a wide range of potential benefits. Those benefits include:
Improved strength, conditioning, coordination, and flexibility
Reduced pain and stiffness
Better balance and lower risk of falls
Greater awareness, calmness, and overall sense of well being
What Are the Health Benefits of Tai Chi?
Because of the gentle nature of tai chi, researchers are particularly interested in the potential tai chi has of providing benefits for older adults. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and other agencies are funding a variety of tai chi research studies. Some of the findings from these studies suggest a wide range of benefits. Overall results, though, have been mixed, and more research is needed to confirm the health claims that are being made.
Here are some examples of the kind of results that have encouraged researchers:
Balance and strength. The Oregon Research Institute found that, after six months, tai chi participants were twice as likely to have no trouble performing moderate to rigorous activities as nonparticipants. The benefit was greatest among those who started with the poorest health or worst function. Other studies have shown a reduction in falls among tai chi participants. In the 1990s, two studies sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) found that tai chi exercises cut the fear of falling and risk of falls among older people. Two small sports medicine studies suggest that tai chi may improve sensitivity to nerve signals in ankles and knees, which might prevent falls. But an evidence-based review of many studies only confirmed better balance -- not a reduction in falls.
Osteoarthritis. Patients with osteoarthritis assigned to a tai chi group during a three-month study reported less joint pain and stiffness than when they started. They also had less pain and stiffness than patients in a control group.
Sleep. Exploring tai chi’s impact on sleep, the Oregon researchers found that tai chi participants had improved sleep quality and length. They also had fewer sleep disturbances than people in a low-impact exercise group. A UCLA study of tai chi chih, a Westernized version of tai chi, also supports claims of sleep benefits. The benefits are similar to those gained through drugs or cognitive behavioral therapy. Two-thirds of the people practicing tai chi chih had major improvements in sleep quality, compared with one-third who of those involved in health education sessions.
Shingles. A viral disease that causes a painful skin rash and blisters, shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. In a shingles study supported by the NIA and NCCAM, researchers found that tai chi prompted an immune response to the varicella-zoster virus similar to that prompted by the varicella vaccine. When combined with the vaccine, tai chi helped create even greater levels of immunity -- double those of the control group. Tai chi participants also reported improvements in function, pain, vitality, and mental health.