Previous studies of Tai Chi have shown that it has a variety of specific health benefits. For instance one study indicated that it can help reduce the pain of arthritis, while another found that it was associated with a reduction in stress, anxiety and depression.
Now a new, across-the-board review, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, has looked at 77 randomised controlled trials carried out between1993 and 2007. They involved 6, 410 participants. The average age was 55, except for studies looking at balance, where the average age was 80. The result is a broader picture of how these disciplines may help us to better health.
The authors say that the review provides a stronger evidence base for a host of benefits. These include bone health, cardio-respiratory fitness, physical function, balance, quality of life, fall prevention and psychological benefits. “We see this as moving the understanding of the potential of Qigong and Tai Chi forward”, said co-author Linda Larkey of Arizona State University College of Nursing and Healthcare Innovation.
So how do they work? “Tai Chi and Qigong (Chi Kung) are both systems of Chinese exercise that are concerned with relaxing the body and mind and stimulating the flow of natural healing energy (Qi) through the meridians or pathways in the body,” explains Ronnie Robinson of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain.
This works in a number of ways, but essentially involves movement, breath and mind. “The movements work to relax the body, open the joints and release deep-held tensions,” says Ronnie. “Attention is paid to the posture, and when the body is in a good structural position, everything that flows though it (blood, oxygen, nutrients and Qi) has a smooth comfortable passage and can work more effectively.
“When the breath is relaxed, tension is released and when the movement is combined with this smooth breath a regular, natural flow takes place in the energetic system.” Benefits for our minds come with time, practice and familiarity, which allow us to focus and improve our ability to relax.
It isn’t a quick fix however; Tai Chi routines vary from five to 20 minutes, and it can take around 25 hours of training to know a five-minute routine well enough to gain health benefits from it.
“Tai Chi can take some time to learn so patience and perseverance are recommended,” says Ronnie. “There are some more simply accessible systems of qigong. Tai Chi Chi Kung combines elements of both disciplines in a series of simple and easy to learn exercises.”
Taking the easier route doesn’t have to mean you’ll miss out on the health benefits. “The research studies reviewed here showed that simplified routines that are more practical for randomised controlled trials are in fact quite effective in health enhancement,” said Shin Lin, a professor at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, Irvine. “Tai Chi and Qigong have many health benefits and should be considered a high priority when one is selecting an exercise to practise.”