Tai chi is sometimes referred to as “moving meditation”—practitioners move their bodies slowly, gently, and with awareness, while breathing deeply. Tai chi appears to be a safe practice. Scientific research on the health benefits of tai chi is ongoing, but several prior studies have focused on benefits in older adults, including tai chi's potential for preventing falls, and improving cardiovascular fitness, symptoms of pain associated with rheumatologic diseases (e.g., fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis), and overall well-being. A 2007 study on the immune response to varicella-zoster virus suggested that tai chi may enhance the immune system and improve overall well-being in older adults. Tai chi has also been studied for improving functional capacity in breast cancer patients and the quality of life in people with HIV infection.
In general, studies of tai chi have been small, or they have had design limitations that may limit their conclusions. The cumulative evidence suggests that additional research is warranted and needed before tai chi can be widely recommended as an effective therapy. This issue of the digest provides a summary of current evidence on tai chi for several conditions.
Modality and Summary of Current Evidence
There is evidence that tai chi may reduce the risk of falling in older adults. There is also some evidence that tai chi may improve balance and stability with normal aging and in people with neuro-degenerative conditions, including mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease and stroke.
Some studies suggest that practicing tai chi may help people manage chronic pain associated with knee osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia.
There is some evidence that tai chi may improve lower extremity range of motion in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Results of studies suggest that tai chi does not exacerbate symptoms. It is not known if tai chi improves pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis or quality of life.
There is some limited evidence that suggests tai chi may be a useful nonpharmacologic approach to improve sleep quality.
A range of research has examined the relationship between exercise and depression. Results from a much smaller body of research suggest that exercise may also affect anxiety symptoms. Even less certain is the role of tai chi—for these and other psychological factors.
There is some evidence that suggests tai chi may have the potential to provide modest enhancements of cognitive function in older adults without cognitive impairment.
There is only limited, inconsistent evidence available on the effectiveness of tai chi for cardiovascular health. A few studies suggest beneficial effects of tai chi on cardiovascular risk factors, but most of the studies have been small, of short duration, and of poor quality to draw conclusions.