How Healthy Is Tai Chi?

healthy tai chi

How Healthy Is Tai Chi?

“Every day think, as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it’.Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Someone somewhere has calculated that 70% of people around the world who practise Tai Chi are doing so for health reasons, and probably have no interest in or maybe even no knowledge of its martial origins. We are told that 50% of the more than 200 million people in China who practise Tai Chi begin after the age of 50 and this statistic may also be applicable worldwide. What are all of these people trying to gain from their interest in this ancient art?

It’s most likely that you are reading this as a member of one or more of Central Tai Chi’s classes. Think for a moment on why you have joined this group of practitioners. You are very likely to answer yourself that it’s wholly or partly for health reasons. Where did this idea that Tai Chi is good for health to come from? How did you hear about it and what do you expect to gain from it? It’s alright someone telling you that it’s so but where’s the evidence?

That’s a lot of questions the like of which got me to thinking ‘Is there really any evidence of a scientific nature that Tai Chi can be “Good For You?”’

In the beginning, I didn’t know if there was any hard evidence, aside from anecdotes and hearsay, that pointed towards Tai Chi having proven health benefits. I didn’t know if any proper scientific research had been undertaken. I knew that it seemed to be doing me some good, much like a lot of others I have spoken to, but that doesn’t stack up in the world of science.

tai chi and healthI thought it might be interesting to see what was out there in the scientific literature and ran into something of a dilemma. There are masses of the stuff – which left me wondering how I was going to wade through it all to produce an article that could fit into this small newsletter. For example, putting Tai Chi into the search engine on the medical website, PubMed, produced 1224 scientific papers to trawl through. (If you think I did you’re in cloud cuckoo land!). It reminded me of the quote attributed to US President, Woodrow Wilson in 1918 who, when asked how long he took to prepare a speech answered:

‘That depends on the length of the speech. If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want it requires no preparation at all.’

I have now decided, for my own sanity and Steve’s ink and paper bill, to produce a series of articles of manageable size, tackling a subject or two at a time.

So folks here’s the start of my attempt to condense some of what I have unearthed, picking some of the typical reasons that people take up Tai Chi and seeing what the science tells us. As this isn’t a scientific paper itself I shan’t be fully referencing the source material. As the doctor said, “you’ll have to trust me!”

But, before I get into the first topic here’s something really interesting to think about. In March this year, a ground-breaking scientific paper was published. With all that’s known about human anatomy, you wouldn’t expect scientists to announce that they had discovered a new body part. But these researchers have found a network of fluid-filled spaces in body tissue that hadn’t been seen before.  These fluid-filled spaces were discovered in connective tissues all over the body, including below the skin’s surface; lining the digestive tract, lungs and urinary systems; and surrounding muscles.

How Healthy Is Tai Chi? 1

It had always been thought that these tissue layers were a dense “wall” of collagen but the new finding reveals that, rather than a “wall,” this tissue is more like an “open, fluid-filled highway.” The researchers are calling this network of fluid-filled spaces an organ—the Interstitium. However, this is, as yet, an unofficial distinction, a consensus would need to develop around the idea as more researchers study it.

Could it be that this new ‘organ’ supports the many benefits of Chi Kung? The interstitium is found in cavities throughout the human body, and Chi Kung practice naturally links all body cavities together until they start opening and closing in unison. This organ may be the mechanism that allows for full body (Quan Shen) Openings and Closings throughout the body.

The Triple Burner (Warmer) meridian (see picture) is also responsible for moving fluids and fascia in the body, so maybe the brainier ones amongst us could build a theory relating the Interstitium to the energetic Triple Burner of traditional Chinese Medicine.

Now back to the first topic…


Dementia  Meditation  Being ‘laid back’

In 2013 a team based at Aston University published a literature review, based on 65 published articles, looking at the evidence for Tai Chi in the management of behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia in residential homes. They were obviously studying the group with one of the greatest degrees of progressive mental impairment and certainly not seeking to find that Tai Chi offered prospects of curing this dreadful condition.

They did find plenty of evidence though that dementia sufferers can still learn new motor skills if a particular motion or task is repeated often enough. The Tai Chi form would be far too complex for many but the simpler Chi Kung (Qigong) exercises offered better prospects in this regard, many of which can even be performed in sitting: “Qigong exercises may be a particularly suitable choice for the following reasons: Qigong exercises involve repetition of simple movements, which helps learning and retention and avoids some participants being left behind. Mirroring of movements allows for constant visual feedback, assisted by the rhythm of music. Especially as cognitive impairment increases, non-verbal communication becomes more important and more accessible. Qigong requires minimal explanation and instructions, but too much music and noise and too many directions and distractions can increase anxiety”

They also suggested that the Tai Chi push (or sticky) hands exercise offered one to one physical contact enabling greater sensory input for teaching the patient: “Physical contact in a supportive and caring way is something people with dementia may find soothing. In a study of couples in which one had dementia, family members with an established emotional connection were used as partners. The Sticky Hands technique is reported to minimize the cognitive challenge, and caregivers reported their perceived benefits as helping both partners to stay active, spend more time together, gain relaxation and pain relief and engage in mental exercise.”

How about exercise for preventing dementia? Another literature review in fact suggests that exercise programmes can halt cognitive decline in later life in healthy adults. So keep practising folks!

Tai Chi is often described as Moving Meditation. I have found many definitions for meditation but I like this one:

Meditation is a practice of concentrated focus upon a sound, object, visualization, the breath, movement, or attention itself in order to increase awareness of the present moment, reduce stress, promote relaxation, and enhance personal and spiritual growth.

People who meditate regularly have been shown to feel less anxiety and depression. They also report that they experience more enjoyment and appreciation of life and that their relationships with others are improved. Although Tai Chi is not meditation in its classical sense you can still expect it to produce a state of deep relaxation and a sense of balance or equanimity. Meditation cultivates an emotional stability that allows the meditator to experience intense emotions fully while simultaneously maintaining perspective on them. Out of this experience of emotional stability, one may gain greater insight and understanding about one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. This insight in turn offers the possibility to feel more confident and in control of life. Like other forms of meditation Tai Chi can facilitate a greater sense of calmness, empathy, and acceptance of self and others.

I have been thinking about this and have come to believe that to benefit from any meditative effects of Tai Chi you need to learn the form (or as much as you’ve so far been taught) and be able to perform it unaided. Obviously this is a gradual and not necessarily easy process, but that is where the gains lie. If meditation requires concentrating the mind inwards and in the present, always following someone else is taking that away and placing it in that lead person’s court. Learning the form is at first by example then bit by bit storing that knowledge through practise until each stage becomes embedded in the long term memory. When that memory store is accessed repeatedly in moving the body through the intricate process that we call The Form, and to the exclusion of all else, only then can we say we are meditating. There will be a physical benefit from always needing a teacher to follow but it can’t be true moving meditation. This would also apply to the Chi Kung exercises too, which are mostly easier to learn, and not to be dismissed because of this.

An often asked, and quite natural, question is ‘what’s left to learn when I know the form?’ Well, and this is what makes Tai Chi such a beautiful art, the simple answer is you start again. Not by forgetting all you have learned but by refining that knowledge, making corrections, testing postures and all the other the little nuances that make Tai Chi so fascinating a lifelong process towards a true inner peace.

How laid back will it make you?

I suppose by ‘laid back’ I really mean how stress reducing might Tai Chi be? If it is what benefits would that bring apart from the b******g obvious?

For certain, it’s now known that stress increases glucose levels in blood which can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes. (So, by the way, does eating lots of low-grade carbohydrates – but that’s another subject, unless I can find evidence that Tai Chi reduces cravings for these, mmm I’ll have to add it to the list!).

A 2014 meta-analysis of 34 randomised controlled trials looking at the psychological and health-restorative benefits of mind-body (i.e. stress reducing) therapies which evaluated at least four weeks of Tai Chi, Chi Kung, Meditation or Yoga reported some improvement in immune outcome measures and after 7 to 16 weeks a reduction in inflammation measurements.

So, if Tai Chi can improve your immunity and reduce inflammation by reducing stress might it help you to live longer too?

Numerous studies have also demonstrated links between chronic stress and cardiovascular disease. People who are stressed over long periods tend to look haggard, and it is commonly thought that psychological stress leads to premature ageing and the earlier onset of diseases of ageing.

Nevertheless, the exact mechanisms of how stress gets ‘‘under the skin’’ remain elusive. A 2004 study of 58 healthy premenopausal women provided evidence that psychological stress is significantly associated with shorter telomere length. (Telomeres are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes, like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. Without the coating, shoelaces become frayed until they can no longer do their job, just as without telomeres, DNA strands become damaged and our cells can’t do their job). It showed that women with the highest levels of perceived stress have telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of at least one decade of additional ageing compared to low stress women. These findings have implications for understanding how, at the cellular level, stress may promote earlier onset of age-related diseases.

I’ll keep you guessing at the moment as to what’s coming next. Partly because I don’t yet have a clue – there’s a few more papers to go through! In the meantime, Keep Practising Folks…

Yogi Berra (American baseball player and coach) once said: