Whether or not you subscribe to the theory that the mind and body contain this mysterious, potentially healing force, the ancient martial art known as Tai Chi can still help bring health and fitness into line, experts say.
What's more, unlike more strenuous physical activities, Tai Chi's slow, balanced movements "are very accessible to older adults or patient populations that may have some physical limitations," said Dr. Michael Irwin, a professor of psychiatry and a researcher at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, part of the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine. He's conducted much research on the health benefits of the practice.
He defined Tai Chi, which originated centuries ago in China, as "a series of slow-moving movements that have a meditative quality, incorporating both physical movement as well as meditation."
Practitioners, who swear by Tai Chi's ability to calm body and soul, often talk about chi and the discipline's ability to restore a yin-yang physiological balance to this "life energy." Irwin said there's currently no way to scientifically validate these theories, "but I'm not bothered by that, because there are lots of things in the world that we do not understand because we do not yet have a way to measure them."
He and other researchers have been able to compare the health of Tai Chi devotees against that of more sedentary types, however. Using a standard "Medical Outcomes Scale," researchers have shown "that there are robust improvements in physical function -- simple things like being able to carry groceries, walk, go up stairs," Irwin said.
That's because Tai Chi, while seemingly slow, is surprisingly good exercise. "There are a number of studies on Tai Chi and its aerobic effects that show that metabolism increases, and there's physical conditioning over time," Irwin said.
Benefits extend to other areas, as well. A much-publicized study this year from Emory University in Atlanta found that Tai Chi helped elderly practitioners reduce their risk for potentially lethal falls. Irwin's own work at UCLA found that Tai Chi reduced older people's risk for the immune disorder shingles. Another UCLA study, to be published soon in the journal Gerontology , showed that it boosted the function of the sympathetic nervous system, which has long been tied to good cardiovascular health.