Slow, meditative Tai Chi helps with relaxation and focus as well as flexibility.

Tai Chi for Better Mental and Physical Health

Tai chi originated in China as a martial art, but it is slower and more meditative. In a tai chi class you will move through a series of postures, many named for animals and birds, such as “white crane spreads its wings.” Tai chi emphasizes continuity, teaching you to move slowly and seamlessly while coordinating your body and breathing. Here are some of the key reasons doctors and fitness experts often recommend tai chi.

1. Tai Chi Increases Flexibility

Like yoga, tai chi uses specific movements and positions to increase flexibility, but with very gradual movements. “A lot of people have trouble with yoga; they can’t get into the positions because they’re too stiff, or they feel like they’re falling, and then it’s not fun and they don’t want to do it,” says says Dr. Kai Ng, MD, who practices Internal Medicine at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco.

2. Tai Chi Builds Strength

While tai chi isn’t going to help you bulk up, it’s excellent for overall strength building. The slow, precise movements build both lower and upper body strength and help you develop muscle control.

3. Tai Chi Helps Your Balance

“Tai Chi helps improve proprioception, which is the feeling of our body in space,” says Ng. And because the focus is on relaxing rather than straining the muscles, you will be moving within your comfort range. For this reason, tai chi is also very low impact.

4. Tai Chi Strengthens Breathing

Tai chi classes often incorporate qigong (or chi kung), a type of meditative breath work, and breath control is emphasized during movements as well. “There’s good evidence that learning good breathing techniques is important in all sorts of ways,” says Ng. Building breath control strengthens the lungs, helps improve the oxygenation of muscles, and simply makes you feel better with more oxygen in the blood.

5. Tai Chi Promotes Healthy Aging

In tai chi the muscles and joints are relaxed, not tensed, so it promotes flexibility with little risk of injury. “Tai Chi is so beneficial for aging because it incorporates a lot of slow movements, and you’re not taken to a lot of extreme postures,” says Ng.  “Some of the best tai chi masters in their 80s and 90s can still do those motions; you don’t have to be crazy athletic.”

6. Tai Chi Improves Performance in Other Sports

Coaches often suggest that athletes incorporate other workouts to balance their fitness, and tai chi can be a good choice. “Tai chi is a series of very fine movements, like dance, so it trains you to be very aware of your body and improves your spatial awareness,” says Ng. In other words, you’re more likely to hit that softball or make that kick in soccer. And the breathing techniques mentioned above will help improve muscle oxygenation, which you’ll notice when you run or participate in other aerobic activities.

7. Tai Chi Reduces Stress

It only takes five minutes of watching a tai chi class to see how effective this practice can be against stress. The concentration required to maintain the fine, precise movements stops the mind from spinning, while slowing and regulating your breathing reduces anxiety and relieves tension.

Melanie Haiken writes about health, wellness and fitness for national magazines and websites. She specializes in discovering and reporting the latest research on diet, nutrition, fitness, weight loss and other health-related topics. Her award-winning stories have appeared in Fitness, Shape, Health, Forbes, and other respected magazines. She also contributes health stories to numerous Kaiser Permanente newsletters and other publications.