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Health benefits of tai chi and qigong

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese mind-body technique using deep breathing, relaxation, and slow, gentle movements.

There is some early evidence that tai chi can help older people reduce their risk of falls.

Qigong is another a type of fitness technique combining exercise with self-healing.

What is tai chi?

Tai chi is a type of low-impact, weight-bearing and aerobic -- yet relaxing -- exercise. It began as a martial art. As it developed, it took on the purpose of enhancing physical and mental health. Practised in a variety of styles, tai chi involves slow, gentle movements, deep breathing and meditation. The meditation is sometimes called "moving meditation."

Some people believe that tai chi improves the flow of energy through the body, leading to better wellness and a wide range of potential benefits. Those benefits include:

  • Improved strength, conditioning, coordination and flexibility
  • Reduced pain and stiffness
  • Better balance and lower risk of falls
  • Enhanced sleep
  • Greater awareness, calmness and overall sense of well being

What are the health benefits of tai chi?

Because of the gentle nature of tai chi, researchers are particularly interested in the potential tai chi has of providing benefits for older adults. So far though, study results have been mixed, and more research is needed to confirm the health claims that are being made.

Here are some examples of the kind of results that have encouraged researchers:

Balance and strength. The Oregon Research Institute in the US found that, after six months, tai chi participants were twice as likely to have no trouble performing moderate to rigorous activities as nonparticipants. The benefit was greatest among those who started with the poorest health or worst function. Other studies have shown a reduction in falls among tai chi participants. In the 1990s, two US studies found that tai chi exercises cut the fear of falling and risk of falls among older people. Two small sports medicine studies suggest that tai chi may improve sensitivity to nerve signals in ankles and knees, which might prevent falls. But an evidence-based review of many studies only confirmed better balance -- not a reduction in falls.

Osteoarthritis. Patients with osteoarthritis assigned to a tai chi group during a three-month study reported less joint pain and stiffness than when they started. They also had less pain and stiffness than patients in a control group. Tai chi may help improve mobility in the lower limb joints of those with rheumatoid arthritis. However, the NHS cautions it is still not known if tai chi can reduce pain in people with rheumatoid arthritis or improve their quality of life.

Sleep. Exploring tai chi’s impact on sleep, the Oregon researchers found that tai chi participants had improved sleep quality and length. They also had fewer sleep disturbances than people in a low-impact exercise group. A University of California (UCLA) study of tai chi chih, a Westernised version of tai chi, also supports claims of sleep benefits. The benefits are similar to those gained through drugs or cognitive behavioural therapy. Two-thirds of the people practicing tai chi had major improvements in sleep quality, compared with one-third who of those involved in health education sessions.

Shingles. A viral disease that causes a painful skin rash and blisters, shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. In a shingles study, researchers found that tai chi prompted an immune response to the varicella-zoster virus similar to that prompted by the varicella vaccine. When combined with the vaccine, tai chi helped create even greater levels of immunity -- double those of the control group. Tai chi participants also reported improvements in function, pain, vitality and mental health.

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