Not many people can deny that becoming and staying physically active is a good thing. After all, the benefits of being active far outweigh the risks. Some of the reasons to fit physical activity into your day include better blood sugars, lower blood pressure, weight control, and stress reduction — and there are many more!
If you’re struggling to find an activity that you enjoy doing, if you need a gentler way to move more, or if your goal is to help better manage the daily stresses of life, consider trying tai chi.
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What is tai chi?
Have you ever driven by a group of people doing slow, coordinated movements and wondered what they were doing? Chances are, they were doing tai chi.
“Tai chi is a centuries-old practice that involves certain postures and gentle movements with mental focus, breathing, and relaxation,” says the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative health. This ancient form of exercise is credited to a Taoist monk, Zhang San Feng, and was created as a martial art. It dates back over 700 years, and possibly longer.
Unlike faster-paced forms of exercise, tai chi is low impact, slow, and gentle, which makes it a great choice for people who aren’t used to being active or who have difficulty with other types of exercise. Tai chi movements can be adapted while walking, standing, or sitting, so it’s accessible to just about everyone. And if practiced quickly, it can give you a decent workout.
The concepts of tai chi include unblocking and encouraging the flow of “qi,” the energy force that flows through the body, and balancing yin and yang, the opposing elements that need to be kept in harmony, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Each posture of tai chi flows into the next, without pausing, which means that the body is constantly in motion. The Tai Chi for Health Institute says that there are many styles and forms of tai chi, including Chen, Yang, Wu, and Sun. While each style differs, they are based on these essential principles:
- Mind integrated with the body
- Control of movements and breathing
- Generating internal energy
- Song (loosening)
- Jing (serenity)
What are the benefits of tai chi?
Practitioners of tai chi consider this to be a form of meditation — in fact, it’s often called “meditation in motion.” This mind-body practice provides numerous mental and physical benefits that make this appealing to many people of all ages, for many reasons. Here are the main benefits of tai chi:
- Decreased stress, anxiety, and depression
- Improved mood
- Improved energy and stamina
- Improved balance and stability
- Reduced risk of falling
- Increased muscle strength and definition
- Better sleep
- Improved cognition
- Reduced joint pain
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer symptoms of congestive heart failure and COPD
- Improved symptoms of fibromyalgia
Tai chi may even help with weight loss. Like walking, tai chi is considered to be a form of moderate-intensity physical activity. A 2015 study in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine indicates that participants who did tai chi or walking five days per week for 12 weeks lost similar amounts of weight and reduced waist size. Another study, published in May 2021 in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, showed that people who did tai chi for three months decreased their waist size and were able to sustain that loss after six months, compared with people doing another type of exercise or no exercise at all.
While tai chi provides a total body workout, it excels at reducing stress by helping to lower levels of cortisol. And not only does cortisol raise stress, it can lead to weight gain, as well.
If you have diabetes, tai chi can help you manage your blood sugars with regular practice. Plus, tai chi helps with enhancing mindfulness. This, in turn, can help decrease mindless eating (and that helps with blood sugar control, too!).
Who can do tai chi?
You might be wondering if tai chi is suitable for you. Because it’s a low-impact type of exercise, tai chi puts minimal stress on joints and muscles, making it safe for people of all ages and fitness levels. However, if you have joint problems, back pain, fractures, severe osteoporosis, or a hernia, or if you’re pregnant, you should check with your health care provider before starting tai chi, advises the Mayo Clinic. You may need to modify or even avoid certain postures.
Here are other reasons to consider trying tai chi:
- You can do this indoors or outdoors
- You can do it alone or with others
- You don’t need special equipment or clothing
- You can find classes in your community, and you can also find videos if you prefer to stay home (however, it’s recommended to first learn tai chi from an instructor)
Ready to give tai chi a try? Once you’ve gotten the green light from your health care provider, consider:
- Exploring class offerings in your community. Contact fitness centers, YMCAs, community centers, or senior centers.
- Because tai chi instructors aren’t required to be licensed, try to get a recommendation for a qualified instructor, or ask the instructor about their training and experience.
- Ask if you can observe and then try a class before committing.
- Let the instructor know if you have certain limitations, for example, back or knee problems, or if you’re pregnant.
- Wear loose fitting clothing and nonslip shoes.
- Drink water before, during, and after your practice
- Also, check your blood sugars before and after your session, and if you’re at risk of low blood sugar, keep a source of fast-acting carb with you, such as glucose tablets, glucose gel, or juice.
- The goal is not to move as fast as you can; instead, the goal is to make your moves flow.
- Be patient and give yourself time to learn.
You can practice tai chi every day, if you want. Unlike other types of exercise, you don’t need to “recover” from tai chi. But pay attention to how you are feeling — you shouldn’t feel any pain. Initially, go slow and spend time learning the moves. Slow and steady is the goal.
Want to learn more about exercising with diabetes? Read “Add Movement to Your Life,” “Picking the Right Activity to Meet Your Fitness Goals” and “Seven Ways to Have Fun Exercising.”