Should you take up tai chi? Experts explain the benefits and how to get started.

 You may have seen people doing tai chi in your local park — and for good reason. Thanks to its mental and physical health benefits, the centuries-old practice remains a popular way to work out the body and mind. The question is: How does it work, and should you join in?

Shifu Shirley Chock, owner and executive director of Aiping Tai Chi in Milford, Conn., tells Yahoo Life that tai chi is a “moving meditation” originating from China that is thought to be a “gentle form of exercise because of its slow, fluid movements.” But there’s much more to it, she says.

“It’s often depicted as something for elders because it is a low-impact exercise that can be modified easily for people with limited mobility,” Chock says. “However, if you look back into the history of tai chi, you will learn that it was first developed as a combat fighting art. In its authentic form, it is a martial art that harnesses the power of efficient movement by releasing the body's tensions and allowing the entire self to move as one integrated mind-body unit.”

And while it’s often associated as a practice for older adults, studies have confirmed that young people can also benefit from trying tai chi, which “provides cardio, weight training and meditation benefits all in one practice,” says Chock. Here, experts share more about the positive outcomes of tai chi, how it compares to other forms of movement and tips on getting started.

How tai chi benefits mental and physical health

Whether you’re practicing in a park, a studio or community center, the slow and intentional movements and postures are easy to do and the positive effects to health and well-being are backed by research.

“One of the benefits of tai chi is its versatility,” Dr. Michelle Loy, an integrative medicine specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and assistant professor in clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “The movements can be adapted or practiced while walking, standing or sitting. Because of the combination of gentle movements, meditative state and breath work, it is not surprising that there are physical, mental, emotional and cognitive benefits to tai chi.”

Aside from improvements to muscle strength, flexibility and balance, clinical studies have shown a number of other unexpected health benefits including:

•Pain reduction for people with fibromyalgia

•Lowering blood pressure in patients with prehypertension

•Controlling blood sugar levels for type 2 diabetics

•Slowing progression of Parkinson’s disease

•Improving memory in the early stages of dementia

•Reducing stress, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders

Loy notes that studies done among adolescents show specific improvement to their self-concept and psychological well-being.

“These benefits have been seen in youth, middle age and older populations,” says Loy, who notes that tai chi has also shown benefits among people with chronic disease such as “mild cognitive impairment, dementia [and] psychiatric disorders.”

“Most people begin their tai chi practice because of its physical health benefits,” Chock adds. “However, I believe tai chi’s most profound impact on well-being is its stress management benefits. Many stress management practices teach you how to relax in an artificially calm and peaceful environment, often when you are in stillness. Tai chi teaches you how to relax while your body is jostling in constant motion, providing you the tools you need to stay focused, centered and relaxed while the body is undergoing mild stress through motion.”

How to get started

Tai chi tends to appeal to people who want to keep themselves physically fit and mentally sharp, particularly as they age. The practice “offers a non-pharmacologic, non-invasive option,” says Loy, who adds that it’s also safer than other forms of exercise.

“Many studies have indicated no negative side effects in people practicing tai chi,” she says. However, experts say it’s important to do your research on instructors when first getting started, as there isn’t a national standard for certification.

“It is important to think about your goals when beginning your tai chi journey and find the right instructor or school that can best lead you toward those goals,” says Chock. “If you are recovering from an injury or suffer from chronic knee or back pain, you will need to find an instructor well-versed in body mechanics who makes it a priority in their lessons to correct students’ structural alignments. Unfortunately, tai chi students can aggravate their pre-existing injuries if they do not have the guidance on how to properly align the knees with the feet, hips and shoulders during the movements.”

Getting in-person instruction is also important, according to Loy. “Learning tai chi from a video or book does not ensure that you’re doing the movements correctly or safely,” she says. Loy also suggests speaking with your health care provider for recommendations if you do have an existing health condition.

“If your first tai chi experience isn’t the right fit for you, try taking classes with another instructor or school until you find the right vibe that aligns with your goals,” says Chock. She also encourages people to start sooner rather than later. “Of my 15 years teaching tai chi, the most frequent comment I hear from my older students is that they wish they started the practice in their younger years.”


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