From a very interesting and well documented article in the New York Times today
The many small studies of Tai chi have found health benefits ranging from better balance and prevention of falls to reduced blood pressure, relief of pain and improved immunity.
Dr. Chenchen Wang and colleagues at Tufts Medical Center in Boston reported in August in The New England Journal of Medicine Tai chi reduced pain and fatigue and improved the patients’ ability to move, function physically and sleep. The benefits persisted long after the 12 weeks of Tai chi sessions ended.
Documenting Tai chi’s purported health benefits is a challenge. As an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine noted, it is virtually impossible to design an ideal study of Tai chi. There is no “fake” version that could serve as a proper control to be tested against the real thing.
And unlike evaluations of drugs, Tai chi studies cannot be double-blinded such that neither patients nor researchers know which group is receiving which treatment. Those guided by a Tai chi master would undoubtedly know who they are and could be influenced by the teacher’s enthusiasm for the practice.
Still, scientists have come to better understand and appreciate the mind-body connection, which for too long was dismissed as a placebo effect, and most doctors are now more willing to accept the possibility that stress-reducing activities can have a profound effect on health.
There is no question that Tai chi can reduce stress. Tai chi “combines meditation with slow, gentle, graceful movements, as well as deep breathing and relaxation to move vital energy (qi by the Chinese, Ki in Japanese) throughout the body.”
If nothing else, this kind of relaxing activity can lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve cardiovascular fitness and enhance mood. For example, a review in 2008 found that Tai chi lowered blood pressure in 22 of 26 published studies.
Thus, it can be a useful aid in treating heart disease, high blood pressure and depression, conditions common among older people who may be unable to benefit from more physically demanding exercise.
Regular practitioners of Tai chi report that they sleep better, feel healthier and experience less pain and stiffness, though it cannot be said for certain that Tai chi alone is responsible for such benefits.
Perhaps the best-documented benefit of Tai chi, and one that is easiest to appreciate, is its ability to improve balance and reduce the risk of falls, even in people in their 80s and 90s.
Another benefit, again especially important to older adults, is the apparent ability of tai chi to improve immune function. In a 2007 study also financed by the Complementary and Alternative Medicine center, those who practiced tai chi had a better response to the varicella zoster vaccine that can help prevent shingles.
Finally, attending a few sessions or even a 12-week course is not enough to guarantee lasting health benefits. As with any other form of exercise, tai chi must be practiced regularly and indefinitely to maintain its value.