Tai chi chuan, a gentle form of martial arts combining deep, diaphragmatic breathing and flowing, dancelike poses, can be a remarkably potent workout for people of many ages. In various recent studies and reviews, tai chi has been found to improve practitioners’ balance, leg strength, cardiovascular endurance, pulse rate, muscular flexibility, immune system response, sleep habits, happiness, sense of self-worth, and ability to concentrate and multitask during cognitive tests.
In one especially impressive study from last year, the brains of older people who had been practicing tai chi for several years were compared with the brains of age-matched sedentary adults. The tai chi participants showed greater connectivity and other measures of health in portions of the brain known to be involved in decision-making and attention than the volunteers who had never done tai chi.
Overall, tai chi “can improve both physical and psychosocial health,” said Dr. Chenchen Wang, the director of the Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
Scientists haven’t yet determined, though, whether tai chi is substantially better for you than other types of light-to-moderate exercise, such as walking, yoga or weight training, said Fuzhong Li, a principal investigator at the Oregon Research Institute, who has studied tai chi. Comparative effectiveness studies pitting the activities against one another have not been done.
But tai chi is definitely better than no or very light activity. “Our work does suggest that tai ji chuan”— another form of the activity’s name — “produces far better outcomes compared to low-impact activities such as stretching,” Dr. Li said.
Many community centers and Y.M.C.A.’s nationwide offer low-cost classes, Dr. Li said. You can find a program near you by visiting the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association’s website at americantaichi.net.