Can Tai Chi offer the same benefits as aerobic exercise?

You may initially think how can Tai Chi even begin to compare to aerobic exercise? Slow, gentle, fluid movements, versus a heart pumping energising workout? A recent study looked at this and came up with some surprising results.

It’s no secret that I love my high intensity workouts, but I also love my yoga too. As a Reiki practitioner I can really feel and appreciate the benefits in these more “gentle” forms of exercising, and I’m a great believer in combining them both. In my line of work I often come across people who have had injuries or conditions that don’t allow them to partake in vigorous exercise, but quite often workouts such as yoga, pilates or Tai Chi can be the ideal solution. A good friend of mine teaches Tai Chi here in York, and so I was particularly interested in this recent study.

Tai Chi (full name Tai Chi Chuan) combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow, flowing movements. Originally developed as a martial art in 13th-century China,  the slow and graceful movements of Tai Chi are reported to be good for both body and mind. But could doing something so gentle really be as effective as a bout of more vigorous exercise? Dr Sarah Aldred, Dr Jet Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Nor Fadila Kasim from the University of Birmingham teamed up with the BBC programme “Trust Me I’m a Doctor” to find out.

The Experiment:

  • They took a group of volunteers aged between 65 and 75, none of whom did regular exercise. Half of them were enrolled in a Zumba class for 12 weeks, while the other half did Tai Chi for 12 weeks.
  • At the beginning, middle and end of the 12 weeks, Jet, Sarah and Nor recorded the volunteers’ blood pressure and measured the flexibility of their blood vessels using ultrasound. The more flexible your blood vessels, the healthier they are.
  • They also measured the levels of antioxidants and other chemical markers of stress and inflammation in the volunteers’ blood. Although stress and inflammation may sound bad, they’re actually a healthy response to exercise and lie behind many of its benefits.

The results:

  • As might be expected, the Zumba group were all fitter after 12 weeks. Their blood vessels were more elastic and their blood pressure had dropped. Their blood results improved in line with people undertaking an exercise regime.
  • More surprisingly however, the results from the Tai Chi group also showed similar benefits to the more rigorous Zumba group, with improvements in blood biomarkers, blood pressure and vessel flexibility.
  • The answer as to why Tai Chi might have similar benefits may rest in the fact that Tai Chi might not be as gentle as it seems. Previous studies undertaken by Sarah and Jet show that people who practise Tai Chi have a similar rise in heart rate to those doing moderate intensity exercise.
Studies have shown that Tai Chi can help older people to reduce stress, improve posture, balance and general mobility, and increase muscle strength in the legs. It's also good for people suffering with fibromyalgia and Parkinson's.

Thanks to the BBC programme “Trust Me I’m a Doctor”. You can find out more here.

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