It’s the New Year and time to start afresh. If you’re looking for a gentle yet beneficial way to exercise, tai chi is the way to go.

Tai chi is a gentle form of low-impact exercise that’s been described as “meditation in motion”.

Originally from the East, it’s becoming increasingly popular in western countries as people look for alternative ways to prevent or ease age-related ailments.

Could tai chi be for you? Read on to learn more about this graceful way of exercising.

What is tai chi?
T'ai chi ch'uan (now mostly shortened to “tai chi” in English) is an ancient mind-body practice that originated in China as a martial art for self-defence. The term “t'ai chi ch'uan” means “supreme ultimate fist” or “boundless fist”.

Tai chi has since evolved into a graceful form of exercise that involves a series of rhythmic, meditative movements performed in a slow, focused manner and accompanied by deep natural breathing as you focus your attention on your bodily sensations.

With your body in constant motion, as each posture flows into the next without pause, tai chi is used to reduce stress and promote inner calmness through gentle, flowing movements.

There are many different styles of tai chi, each with variations and their own subtle emphasis on diverse techniques and principles. While some styles focus on the martial-art component, others aim to maintain balance, flexibility and strength.

How tai chi works
It’s not necessary to understand tai chi’s roots in ancient Chinese philosophy to enjoy its health benefits. However, knowing the basics of some key concepts may help you get to grips with its approach:

    • Tai chi originates from qigong, a discipline that involves the breath, mind and movement to create a calm, natural energy balance.

    • Qi is defined as the “life force”, an intrinsic energy that flows through pathways in the body called meridians. Proponents of tai chi say the exercise unblocks and encourages the smooth flow of qi.

    • Yin and yang. These are opposing elements in the universe that need to be kept in harmony. Tai chi is said to promote this balance.

Tai chi differs from many western forms of exercise in the following ways:

    • The movements are usually circular and never forced.

    • During the exercises, muscles are relaxed (not tense), and joints aren't fully bent or extended.

    • The exercises put minimal stress on joints and muscles, and are therefore low impact. This makes it generally safe for all ages and fitness levels.

Health benefits of tai chi
Tai chi is an effective addition to conventional medical treatment to prevent and rehabilitate many age-related conditions, according to Prof Peter Wayne, Director of the Tai Chi and Mind-Body Research Programme at Harvard Medical School's Osher Research Centre. Scientific research is ongoing, with several studies focusing on the elderly and the potential of tai chi to prevent falls and improve overall wellbeing. So far, the results have been very positive.

Some of the documented benefits of tai chi include:

    • Improved muscle strength: It’s been shown to improve strength in both the upper and lower body. The unsupported arm exercises in tai chi strengthen the upper body, while other movements strengthen core back and abdominal muscles.

    • Increased flexibility: Women who do tai chi show a significant increase in upper- and-lower-body flexibility.

    • Balance and falling: As we get older, the ability to sense the position of our bodies in space (proprioception) begins to decline, which could lead to serious falls, disability and even death. Tai chi helps train this functional ability, which involves sensory neurons in the inner ear and stretch receptors in the ligaments and muscles. Tai chi also challenges and boosts balance; the slow, deliberate movements entail shifting the body weight from one leg to the other in coordination with upper-body movements.

Can tai chi help reduce disease?
The Chinese believe that tai chi, combined with other treatments, may also help treat certain diseases. Some examples include:

Parkinson's disease: People with mild to moderately severe Parkinson's disease showed improved balance, walking ability, and overall wellbeing after 20 tai chi sessions, in a small study conducted by researchers at Washington University’s School of Medicine (2008).

Stroke: A study involving people who had suffered a stroke at least six months earlier found that three months of tai chi improved standing balance more than a general exercise programme. The latter consisted of breathing, stretching and exercises to mobilise muscles and joints used to sit and walk. The study was published in Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair (2009).

Arthritis: People with severe knee osteoarthritis reported a reduction in pain as well as improved mood and physical functioning by doing an hour of tai chi twice a week for 12 weeks. These improvements were found to be bigger than those in people who did standard stretching exercises. The study by researchers at Tufts University was presented during a meeting of the American College of Rheumatology in October 2008.

Low bone density: Tai chi may be a safe and effective way to maintain bone density in postmenopausal women, according to a review of six controlled studies by Harvard University.

How to get started
Keen to give tai chi a go? Then follow these steps:

Find an instructor: With tai chi growing in popularity, classes are offered in local fitness centres, gyms and health clubs. However, it’s best to learn proper breathing and movement techniques from an experienced tai chi instructor. While this ancient martial art is slow and gentle, it’s possible to injure yourself if you don’t know how to do the exercises properly. Try to get a recommendation from other tai chi enthusiasts in your area.

Be comfortable: Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing that won't restrict your range of movement. Exercising barefoot is fine, but you can also wear lightweight, comfortable shoes with thin, flexible soles that allow you to feel the ground. Running shoes are generally unsuitable.

Commit for a number of sessions: Once you’ve found an instructor you’re comfortable with, sign up for at least 12 weeks or for an even longer period of time. You should do tai chi at least once a week.

Be aware of the risks: Consult your doctor before trying tai chi if you’re pregnant or if you have back pain, joint problems, a hernia, severe osteoporosis or any medical condition that might be affected by exercise. Your doctor may recommend that you ask the instructor to slightly modify certain tai chi postures or to avoid others.