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Similar to other practices--strength training, physical therapy, running, et cetera--we can evaluate the effectiveness of tai chi for improving fitness, mobility, strength, and other health markers. So, what aspects of health and fitness does tai chi improve?

In this context, assume a form-based, health-only approach. No self-defense applications, no push hands, no sparring, not necessarily any combative drills.

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This seems like a tough question to answer to me because "health" is a vague term and it begs to be compared to other things.

I would think one advantage forms based tai chi would have over the other things you mentioned (running, strength training) is an additional mental discipline / meditative aspect that would contribute to mental health and well-being that strength training (for example) by itself would not have.

That said, Tai chi is probably worse at any one aspect of health than something dedicated to that specific instance would be. For instance, it will not make you as strong as strength training. It will not make you as cardiovascularly fit as running, it will not make you as flexible as yoga, it will not make you as centered as meditating.

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I suppose you could say, then, that it does what it's intended to do very well. It's also good to note that the benefit isn't necessarily negated because other things can bring you further. Not everyone needs powerlifting-class strength, and not everyone needs contortionist-level flexibility. –  Ben Richards May 22 '12 at 18:38
    
@sidran32 Not everyone needs powerlifting-class strength, but squats and presses are probably superior to forms-only practice for building any level of strength for anyone but the most infirm. –  Dave Liepmann May 22 '12 at 19:52
    
@DaveLiepmann Probably, ya. Though I suppose, then, it depends on your goals. If your goal is to do tai chi, then doing tai chi a lot will work the right muscles enough so that you can do tai chi. If you want something else, then you may need something else. –  Ben Richards May 22 '12 at 20:43
    
@DaveLiepmann Although, also, it is not necessarily easy to hold the forms, especially if they're being performed slowly. Standing in stance for long periods actually can be quite tiring, even if you aren't infirm. –  Ben Richards May 22 '12 at 21:15
    
@sidran32 True. Stance training can be good stuff. However, it's important to keep in mind that tiring and difficult does not always equal productive. –  Dave Liepmann May 22 '12 at 21:17
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Classifying tai-chi-for-health

What are we talking about when we talk about forms-based tai chi? Evaluating the practice as an ignorant outsider, it's essentially a slow dance. There are a number of one-footed balancing postures, deep lunges or otherwise low stances, and opportunity to stretch the limbs as well as flex and extend. In addition to the meditative aspects, there is a degree of social interaction if it is performed in a group or class. These are all swell, but not particularly revolutionary compared to anything else.

As with many group dance and movement programs, tai chi's primary appeal is its compliance factor. People like doing it! A mediocre program that people do over the long term is better in every way than a perfect program that people do for six weeks then quit. Similarly, a mediocre program that people enjoy doing is generally better than a perfect program that people find boring or stressful. This may be where tai chi shines.

In reviewing some scientific studies, we find that there may or may not be awesome healing properties to tai chi. Most likely, it's just that it's a good idea to get up and move, particularly if you don't do so very often.

A Survey of PubMed Science by an Amateur

Context

There are lots of studies on forms-based tai chi as a useful exercise modality. Largely, what we can conclude from this glut of research is:

  • Wow, do scientists love having old people do tai chi.

  • It's important to put the science in context:

    Despite the increased number of studies in recent years relating Tai Chi to balance and fall prevention, results are scattered and inconsistent. There is wide variation in the use of balance measures, subject population, type and duration of Tai Chi exercise, and type of study.

  • We must be skeptical:

    Although many investigators have reported possible psychological benefits of TC for children, young adults, older healthy adults, and for a variety of patient populations, many of the reports suffer one or more methodological flaws. These flaws include inadequate study design, including lack of control groups, small sample sizes, unsophisticated statistical techniques, or publication without rigorous peer review.

In particular, I find it preposterous that so few studies use a reasonable control group, such as a group that takes up chess or hopskotch or skeeball or Irish shin-kicking, to see whether the beneficial effects are due to something about Tai Chi, or sports, or mental exercise, or meditation, or another factor. It belies an egregious lack of rigor.

Inconclusive studies

I found a number of negative or inconclusive studies from a quick and dirty PubMed search:

These do not suggest that we should avoid tai chi. They just mean science is hard, and these scientists are good and honest folk. Admitting null results is good for science. It should be applauded.

Something is better than nothing, particularly for geezers

In terms of positive results, that quick-and-dirty search lead me to the entirely unsurprising conclusion that something is better than nothing. Again, it's important to keep the admonitions in the Context section in mind when reviewing these.

At this point I am confident that forms-based tai chi is superior to sitting in a wheelchair while waiting to die.

Tai chi actually beat something

There were a few studies that used control groups more useful than "watching Dynasty reruns".

Conclusion

A study of studies provides a good perspective for evaluating the science, in tai chi and beyond:

Most trials were judged at unclear risk of selection bias, generally reflecting inadequate reporting of the randomisation methods, but at high risk of performance bias relating to lack of participant blinding, which is largely unavoidable for these trials. Most studies only reported outcome up to the end of the exercise programme.

...

There is weak evidence that some types of exercise (gait, balance, co-ordination and functional tasks; strengthening exercise; 3D exercise [such as tai chi] and multiple exercise types) are moderately effective, immediately post intervention, in improving clinical balance outcomes in older people. Such interventions are probably safe.

Overall the science is not convincing in any specific way. I'm sticking with my unscientific "moving > not moving" perspective detailed above. This would point to forms-based tai chi as indeed a productive but not necessarily superior practice for health.

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@downvoter Any feedback or criticism? –  Dave Liepmann May 28 '12 at 1:18
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Kudo's for pubmed citations - excellent. –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 7 '12 at 11:14
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Although, both answers so far have made good points I happen to agree with, I would like to weigh in with an alternative albeit perhaps not so very popular answer.

I would argue that by selecting just a small subset of the whole system, you are already forfeiting some of the benefits that the whole system can offer.

Or to quote the words of Yang Cheng Fu from his book "The Practical Application of Taijiquan":

In Taijiquan, the ability to cultivate oneself physically and spiritually, but not to defend oneself, is civil accomplishment. The ability to defend oneself, but not to cultivate oneself, is martial accomplishment. The soft Taiji method is the true Taiji method. The ability to teach the art of self-cultivation and self-defense, both cultivation and application, is complete civil and martial Taiji.

-- (translation adapted from Douglas Wile's translation).

It is unfortunately rather common in world everywhere to state that "I am not interested in fighting, only health or aerobic exercise" and still claim to be practicing tai-chi.

That all said, it is my experience that Taijiquan can be good for your health. Just as regular jogging and any other form of exercise.

Provided that you practice it regularly and with good measure of concentration, it can be good for your physical and mental health, just as any good regular exercise.

As an additional bonus, the underlying principle of Taijiquan - that of applying softness to defeat hardness - can be used not only in the physical interactions, but also in your social and intellectual interactions with the external world, thus greatly increasing your quality of life.

The only catch is that it will require you to be immersed in the full system of the teaching without limiting yourself just to a subset of exercises of your choice.

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As has been mentioned here, when studying Tai Qi, you need to study the system as a whole. When studying any martial art for only health benefits, you lose the majority of the benefit of that art. That said, the primary benefit of Tai Qi, health or otherwise, is strong Qi development. As this occurs, health will improve. The problem I have with Tai Qi taught for only "health" benefits is usually the lack of proper Qi teaching which, of course, significantly diminishes the true health benefits. While practicing Tai Qi or any other art for solely health benefits can and does have some measurable health benefits, however small, using Tai Qi, in particular, for Qi development is it's greatest gift and greatest benefit.

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I have found it extremely good at dealing with RSI (tendonitis). Daily practice of Tai Chi helped me reduce nodules on an almost unusable right wrist to the point where the problem is a distant memory.

My late mother also benefited hugely from some very simple Tai Chi, not much more than warmup and about half the short form, for her balance. As a long-term Leukemia sufferer on many medications, she was somewhat frail and had balance problems.

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Pre-communist legit taijiquan can bring a buttload of health benefits but in reality, it was designed really for combat. Seriously. Look up about the original "taijiquan" which came from the Chen family. And the mentioned founder of the family combat system: Chen Wangting. He was a general of the late ming dynasty. If you saw the fact of how he was able to pass the military imperial examinations and etc, you'd see that originally "taijiquan" was based on certain methods of conditioning and training for combat. Yes, even weighted training was involved (not talking isolated type of weight training where you divide muscle workout groups) and it had relevance to functional strength. For example, the 10-12 ft long big spear had a certain body method that requires you to use your body in a unified compounded way. It requires you to use your structural muscles/muscles closer and bigger to your core body as main power initiators as opposed to using segmented strength. Basically the ancient warriors had a pretty good idea on how to use our bodies as it was designed to according by human physiology and anatomy.

Now in this context, the health benefits come naturally as you learn how to use your body as it was designed to. The combative art was created to help a person achieve optimal usage of their body in combat or similar situations. Yes, "taijiquan" has health benefits but really, it was not the point of practicing. The original point was about combat and improving oneself constantly as a whole person.

Just my two cents.

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