It is hard to overstate the benefits of exercise for health, wellbeing, and function. However, exercise is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and finding an activity that you connect with is the key to long-term participation. If you are in search of exercise to increase strength and flexibility, reduce muscle and joint pain, improve balance and blood pressure while also incorporating meditative elements, tai chi may be for you.
Tai chi is a safe and gentle exercise that can be learned relatively quickly, but that has great depth you can explore for a lifetime. People of any fitness level can meaningfully participate, including those who are very fit and those with chronic health conditions or pain. Tai chi may be performed seated or adapted for people with restricted movement. Movements are slow and comfortable, with no excessive stretching of joints or muscles. Tai chi is much different than what we typically think of as exercise and sport, but regular practice has been shown to result in many of the same health benefits.
Tai chi began in China as a martial art and is based in philosophical principles of energy flow. There are numerous styles of tai chi, some emphasizing expansive movements, rapid speed changes and a low stance with deeply bent knees, while others incorporate slower, modest movements and a higher stance. All practices of tai chi involve mindful movements to integrate the body and mind.
An accessible entrance into the world of tai chi is the widely offered Tai Chi for Health, created by Dr. Paul Lam. The principal form, Tai Chi for Arthritis and Fall Prevention, is an extensively studied program recognized for reducing pain, decreasing falls, improving strength and flexibility and improving mental wellbeing.
The nature of tai chi is to be relaxed and enjoyable, and there is not a race to learn quickly or achieve perfection. A typical class starts with warm-up exercises, which include gentle movements of the joints. As you learn the form, or set of movements, you may only learn one or two new movements during each class. While some are learning the movements, others can practice the deeper principles — no one needs to feel rushed. Online and DVD options are also available for those who prefer to practice at home.
If combining beneficial exercise with mindfulness appeals to you, give tai chi a try. You may find a healthful, lifelong practice of meditation in motion.
Tiffany Salido is a doctor of physical therapy and owner of The Movement Joint, a wellness studio offering safe, PT-led exercise classes individualized for people with joint and muscle pain, weakness, balance problems, and mobility difficulties, or who want guidance to begin their fitness journey. Find out more at themovementjoint.com.