Perhaps you’ve seen tai chi mentioned briefly in pamphlets at your doctor’s office, alongside other gentle exercises like swimming, bike riding, or yoga. Or maybe you’ve seen others practicing tai chi in a peaceful park on a weekend morning.
But if you haven’t taken the plunge to try tai chi yet, it’s worth considering why not: Do you associate it with older individuals? Does it seem difficult? Are you unfamiliar with how to get started?
Here’s the fact: Tai chi, which involves a series of gentle, low-impact physical exercises and stretches, can be beneficial for reducing stress and helping with a variety of health conditions, per the Mayo Clinic. Originally developed for self-defense in ancient China, it is now sometimes described as meditation in motion because it connects the mind and body.
“Tai chi is one of the great ancient modalities that has been remarkably tied to not just physical health in terms of flexibility, movement, balance, and muscle strengthening, but also to mental health,” says Aly Cohen, MD, an integrative rheumatologist and environmental health expert in Princeton, New Jersey, and founder of The Smart Human health and wellness platform on social media.
“When you’re dealing with chronic conditions in rheumatology that are really difficult to manage, it’s nice to have some form of exercise that also takes that mind-body approach — and tai chi hits all the marks,” adds Dr. Cohen.
While more research is needed to determine its effect on alleviating pain from rheumatoid arthritis, some research shows that tai chi may be helpful in reducing pain in those who have low-back pain, fibromyalgia, and knee osteoarthritis, per the National Institutes of Health.
One classic study in the Journal of Rheumatology found that practicing tai chi helped women with osteoarthritis improve their symptoms, physical functioning, and balance after 12 weeks. Another 2017 study in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation found that higher mindfulness, which tai chi helps you develop, was significantly associated with a greater likelihood of response to nonpharmacologic exercise interventions in knee osteoarthritis.
What’s more, tai chi was named “the most underrated workout for relieving stress and improving sleep” by NBC News.
“With tai chi, you teach your body how to manage stress through physical practice,” says tai chi expert Shirley Chock, whose social platform is one of the fastest growing internal arts channels on Instagram and TikTok. “It also helps you strengthen the areas in your body that give you proper stability and balance.”
Chock, who has arthritis in her right knee, notes that she only associated tai chi with older people when she was younger. But when she started practicing it in her 20s, she recognized the vast benefits it could have in her health and life in general.
In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May), we took a moment to reexamine this ancient Chinese martial art — now practiced by all ages worldwide — and its benefits if you have an underlying condition like arthritis.
It Restores Balance to Benefit Your Joints
Chock, who has students with limited mobility, says many come to her with issues like pain in specific joint pain. However, it’s essential to start with total-body alignment.
“A lot of people have an issue with mobility and immediately go to improve that one issue, but I always try to get them to start with body alignment, because that’s typically what’s causing the issue,” says Chock.
Over the years, wear and tear can cause your joints to become misaligned. When weight is unevenly distributed throughout your body, it may contribute to chronic pain, which is why it’s important to focus on your alignment first and foremost.
Chock likens it to cooking: No matter what you’re trying to cook, you need to start with a clean pan. Otherwise, your recipe won’t turn out well.
“With every person I work with, we start by understanding your body’s symmetry and alignment,” says Chock. “Can you make the left and right side of your body feel the same? Get yourself to an equilibrium where you’re not putting extra weight and pressure on one side, so your body can structurally support itself the way it was designed to.”
Try this now: When you’re sitting, do you feel an equal amount of weight underneath your left hip and right hip? If you can find balance in a sitting position, your spine will also be centered.
Next, when you stand, notice if you are leaning more on one foot than the other. Many people favor one side, which can cause the rest of your body to get out of alignment.
Through tai chi, you might find that focusing on proper alignment may ease some pain.
“The more you end up having to seesaw from one side to another, the more you’re causing wear and tear on your joints,” says Chock. “When you can keep everything in proper alignment, you won’t be putting your body in a position it’s not designed to be in.”
It Helps You Manage Stress
Think about the last time you felt stressed: You likely noticed physical symptoms like faster breathing, a tight chest, or a fluttery belly.
“Stress is your body’s negative reaction to things that you worry about or that you have to do,” says Chock. “It has a very physical component to it. A lot of people think about just a mental component of stress — but you feel it in your body first.”
Chock notes that it’s very difficult to calm your mind using mental exercises, especially if you’re highly stressed. That’s why it’s important to incorporate a physical component like tai chi to calm your mind through your body.
“When you’re stressed out, your mind is already flooded and it’s very difficult to drain that flood,” says Chock. “Many stress management tools don’t work because they’re mental exercises. When you’re at that point, think about it as hacking your mind through your body.”
Tai chi brings attention to where you’re holding stress in the body. For instance, when you’re stressed, it’s likely that you’re tightening your jaw and teeth. In tai chi, there’s a specific tongue position that is used to prevent your teeth from closing. When your jaw unclenches as a result, it relieves tension throughout the rest of your face as well. (See how to practice this tongue positioning here.)
This practice also brings attention to your breathing and how it travels through your body. Tai chi encourages your breath to lengthen, resulting in full-body relaxation. That is particularly helpful if you’re dealing with the stress that comes with having a chronic, underlying condition.
“For anyone with chronic pain conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus, or any other autoimmune disease, the stress can be overwhelming and can change the way people make good choices — like eating healthy, drinking water, and getting enough sleep,” says Dr. Cohen. “When you reduce stress, your brain is more freed up to make healthier choices across the board.”
It’s a Gentle, Low-Impact Exercise
Tai chi is a gentle form of exercise that can help you maintain strength, flexibility, and balance — and a growing body of research supports its use as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of several conditions, per Harvard Medical School.
But to get started with tai chi, it’s important to seek out high-quality training so you avoid injury.
“For any new form of exercise, it’s critical to locate practitioners or group classes that are geared toward your capability,” says Dr. Cohen. “For tai chi, you want to have someone teach the basics for the moves while also taking into account weight-bearing joints that may be painful.”
Before you start any new exercise, you’ll also want to chat with your health care provider.
If you start virtually, Chock recommends the Tai Chi for Health Institute, which includes online lessons for those with arthritis and other conditions like diabetes, heart conditions, and memory loss.
You can also start with the following free videos from Chock at home:
- Qigong exercises to release tension (Qigong is a wellness practice similar to tai chi)
- How tai chi movement works
- The key to better mobility in tai chi
- Qigong exercise to strengthen your feet, glutes, and core
More on Managing Stress
The Global Healthy Living Foundation’s Wellness Evolution podcast brings together a diverse community of patients and health care providers to explore the relationship between health and wellness, featuring episodes on mindfulness, deep breathing, chronic illness, and mental health. Listen now.
Interview with Aly Cohen, MD, an integrative rheumatologist and environmental health expert in Princeton, New Jersey, and founder of The Smart Human health and wellness platform on social media.
Lee AC, et al. Mindfulness Is Associated With Treatment Response From Nonpharmacologic Exercise Interventions in Knee Osteoarthritis. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. May 12, 2017. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apmr.2017.04.014.
The health benefits of tai chi. Harvard Medical School. May 24, 2022. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-health-benefits-of-tai-chi.
Why tai chi is the most underrated workout for relieving stress and improving sleep. NBC News. May 8, 2018. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/why-tai-chi-most-underrated-workout-relieving-stress-improving-sleep-ncna871946.
Song R, et al. Effects of tai chi exercise on pain, balance, muscle strength, and perceived difficulties in physical functioning in older women with osteoarthritis: a randomized clinical trial. The Journal of Rheumatology. September 1, 2003. https://www.jrheum.org/content/30/9/2039.
Tai Chi: What You Need To Know. National Institutes of Health. March 2022. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/tai-chi-what-you-need-to-know.
Stress management. Mayo Clinic. October 8, 2022. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/multimedia/tai-chi-video/vid-20084646.
Interview with tai chi expert Shirley Chock.