When it comes to low-impact, high-benefit workouts, you can't do much better than tai chi. The Chinese martial art emphasizes intentional, fluid motions for maximum mind-body benefits. And while tai chi's accessibility makes it popular among an older crowd, anyone can benefit from adding the practice to their workout routine.
"Tai chi offers physical and mental benefits for athletes and non-athletes alike," says Peter Wayne, Ph.D., author of "The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi." "Many athletes practice tai chi as part of their cross-training, but the low-impact movements make it suitable for almost every fitness level." Keep reading for the unbeatable benefits of this soothing martial art.
1. Better Balance
Shifting weight from one leg to the other is a big part of tai chi, so it's no wonder that a 2017 Journal of the American Geriatrics Society review of 10 studies found that the martial art reduced the rate of falls in older adults by 43 percent, even more than other interventions like physical therapy. Even if you're not at the age where falling is a big deal, tai chi can help improve your balance in other activities like yoga and boxing.
Read more: 13 Yoga Poses to Help You Be Less Klutzy
2. Improved Cardiovascular Health
Even though it looks nothing like the medicine-ball slams or sprints that you're used to in high-intensity and high-impact workouts, tai chi offers real cardiovascular benefits. A 2015 Plos One review found that tai chi can improve markers of cardiovascular health like blood pressure and resting heart rate. And author Peter Wayne notes that you can speed up the movements for more cardio. (Try these tai chi basic steps for beginners if you're new to this martial art.)
3. More Mindfulness, Less Anxiety
Tai chi is the exact opposite of zoning out on the elliptical in front of your favorite TV show. "Tai chi requires you to listen to your body's feedback, which means you need to focus on the present," tai chi expert Peter Wayne says. How's your posture? How do your feet feel on the ground?
This comes with all the additional benefits of mindfulness, including increased pain tolerance, more confidence and less anxiety. "It's easy to ruminate on the past or focus on things that can go wrong in the future, but tai chi brings you back to the moment," author Peter Wayne says.
4. Increased Quality of Sleep
The mindful nature of tai chi could also help you sleep better. A 2017 Journal of Clinical Oncology study found that tai chi improved sleep quality in women recovering from breast cancer. "Some of my students do tai chi if they can't sleep at night," tai chi expert Peter Wayne says. It's certainly more calming than tossing and turning for hours on end.
Read more: 7 Simple Exercises to Help You Get to Sleep
5. Weight Loss
This stress-reducing, cardio-boosting combo sets the perfect stage for weight loss. Not only does tai chi burn anywhere from 240 to 356 calories an hour (depending on your weight), but reducing stress is an important part of any weight-loss plan. People with lower stress levels lost more weight than those who were stressed in a 2012 International Journal of Obesity study.
6. Pain Management
People who did tai chi once a week for 12 weeks experienced a decrease in neck pain, according to a 2016 Journal of Pain study of more than 100 people. Researchers credit these benefits to the mind-body connection mentioned earlier. "Tai chi, along with eastern philosophy more generally, sees the mind and body as one," author Peter Wayne says. "They work together." (Meditation may help ease pain for the same reason.)
7. Brain Boost
Elderly people who practiced tai chi three times a week for 40 weeks experienced increased brain volume, which translates to improved memory and cognition, according to a 2013 Journal of Alzheimer's Disease study. "Tai chi reduces inflammation, which destroys nerve cells in the brain," says James Mortimer, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of South Florida and author of the study. "It also increases a growth factor that produces more neurons in the hippocampus (a brain region associated with memory)."
Read more: 8 Ways to Keep Your Brain Sharp as You Age