Just One Thing

BBC’s Michael Mosley puts Tai Chi to the test and finds:

Tai Chi could lengthen your life.

The ancient practice of Tai Chi is particularly popular in Hong Kong, where residents have one of the highest life expectancies in the world. Is this connected? Quite possibly. Those who practise Tai Chi regularly live significantly longer than those who don’t, according to a 2022 Shanghai study which followed 60,000 men for five years.

It’s healthy for your heart.

It is said to be good for heart health. In a recent study, comparing Tai Chi to brisk walking, the martial art was found to be significantly better at reducing blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease, like blood sugar levels and cholesterol.

It can boost your immunity.

Tai Chi could also benefit your immune system. In a Californian study where half the participants were told to take Tai Chi classes, half took health education classes, and everyone received a shingles vaccine, it was the Tai Chi trainees whose immunity was measuring twice as high as those in the other group nine weeks later.

(The Tai Chi group also showed greater improvements in physical functioning, vitality, mental health and reductions in bodily pain.)

Tai Chi improves brain function – fast.

Tai Chi has been found to improve brain function (like memory and mental flexibility) faster than other exercise.

Dr. Parco Siu from the University of Hong Kong has been studying the health benefits of the martial art for over a decade. He ran a study where they compared practising Tai Chi for three hours a week with conventional aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening activities “for improving cognitive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.”

They found improvements in brain function across the board, but for those practising Tai Chi it came a lot sooner: “We found that Tai Chi actually can induce greater and earlier improvements on global cognitive function and cognitive flexibility.”

It burns the same number of calories as conventional exercise.

It looks like very gentle, slow, smooth movement, says Dr Siu. Barely exercise at all. But someone practising Tai Chi burns a similar number of calories to someone who appears to be working out a lot harder: “The participant practising Tai Chi – they burn similar calories compared to conventional exercise in our research setting.”

Tai Chi can help you lose fat as quickly as the gym.

Another study had surprising findings when it came to Tai Chi and weight loss.

Tai Chi is “about as effective as conventional exercise”, including aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities, “for reducing our waist circumference in the individual with central obesity,” says Dr Siu. (Central obesity is a sign of visceral, internal fat surrounding our organs.)

This is great news, he says, for those who don’t enjoy conventional exercise or who have limited mobility. “Now they can have another option that can allow them to manage the condition of central obesity.”

Tai Chi and Qi Gong - No pain but big gains. Build health fast in slow motion.

Although tai chi is slow and gentle and doesn’t leave you breathless, it addresses the key components of fitness — muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and, to a lesser degree, aerobic conditioning. Here’s some of the evidence from countless recent studies:

Muscle strength. Tai chi can improve both lower-body strength and upper-body strength. When practiced regularly, tai chi can be comparable to resistance training and brisk walking.

Although you aren’t working with weights or resistance bands, the unsupported arm exercise involved in tai chi strengthens your upper body. Tai chi strengthens both the lower and upper extremities and also the core muscles of the back and abdomen.

Flexibility. Tai chi can boost upper- and lower-body flexibility as well as strength.

Balance. Tai chi improves balance and, according to some studies, reduces falls. Proprioception — the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space — declines with age. Tai chi helps train this sense, which is a function of sensory neurons in the inner ear and stretch receptors in the muscles and ligaments. Tai chi also improves muscle strength and flexibility, which makes it easier to recover from a stumble. Fear of falling can make you more likely to fall; some studies have found that tai chi training helps reduce that fear.

Aerobic conditioning. Depending on the speed and size of the movements, tai chi can provide some aerobic benefits.

Mental health management. The mental health benefits of Tai Chi and Qi Gong result from bringing conscious focus into the body and present moment and away from past regrets or future fears. Increased blood flow, a calm nervous system, a relaxed breathing also contributes to a positive disposition and a practitioner experiencing periods of clear, calm thinking quieting your mind.

In many different clinical trials, positive effects on mood and anxiety were found with Tai Chi and Qi Gong practice.