The ancient art of tai chi combines deep breathing and relaxation with gentle movements, helping to promote and strengthen muscle health and fitness
Looking after your muscles as well as heart is important to stay fit and healthy. Adults are advised to do muscle-strengthening exercises twice a week, as well as aerobic exercise, to help them stay active for longer under new UK doctor guidelines, which for the first time include advice on safe activity levels for pregnant women and new mums. Also recommended is tai chi, which is especially good for the over 65s.
The ancient art of tai chi combines deep breathing and relaxation with gentle movements. Also called tai chi chuan, it was originally developed as a martial art in 13th century China. Today it is practised around the world as a health-promoting exercise.
Although tai chi is slow and gentle and doesn’t leave you breathless, it addresses the key components of fitness — muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and to a lesser degree aerobic conditioning. Here’s some of the evidence:
Muscle strength – Tai chi can improve both lower-body and upper-body strength. When practised regularly, tai chi can be comparable to resistance training and brisk walking. Although you aren’t working with weights or resistance bands, the exercises strengthens both the lower and upper extremities and also the core muscles of the back and abdomen.
Flexibility – Tai chi can boost upper and lower-body flexibility as well as strength.
Balance – Tai chi improves balance as it improves the ability to sense the position of your body in space, something which naturally declines with age. Improved balance may also help reduce the number of falls and all the associated complications.
Aerobic conditioning – Depending on the speed and size of the movements, tai chi can provide some aerobic benefits.
Tai chi is very safe and no fancy equipment is needed, so it’s easy to get started. Here’s some advice for doing so:
Are there different styles of tai chi? Yes, such as yang, chen and wu. Some teachers often practice a combination of styles. The main differences between the different styles are in the speed of movement and the way the body holds the postures.
What’s the basic technique? Tai chi is characterised by its slow, graceful, continuous movements that are gentle on the joints and muscles. Done correctly, you’ll find that tai chi poses flow smoothly from one into another. Many movements are completed with bent knees in a squat-like position. Get advice from your GP before starting tai chi if you have any health concerns or an existing health condition. You may need to take certain precautions if you’re pregnant, have a hernia, back pain or severe osteoporosis.
Take a class. Seeing a teacher in action, getting feedback and experiencing the camaraderie of a group are all pluses in learning tai chi. Most teachers will let you observe the class first to see if you feel comfortable with the approach and atmosphere. If you’d rather learn at home you can buy or rent videos geared to your interests and fitness needs.
Dress comfortably. Choose loose-fitting clothes that don’t restrict your range of motion. You can practice barefoot or in lightweight, comfortable and flexible shoes. Tai chi shoes are available but not necessary for a beginner – just make sure you choose shoes that won’t slip and provide enough support to help you balance but have soles thin enough to allow you to feel the ground. Running shoes, designed to propel you forward, are usually unsuitable.
Give it a chance. Most beginning programmes and tai chi interventions tested in medical research last at least 12 weeks, with instruction once or twice a week and practice at home. By the end of that time, you should know whether you enjoy tai chi and you may already notice positive physical and psychological changes.