The traditional Chinese martial art, tai chi , has been around for over 600 years. Ancient Chinese philosophy asserts that tai chi improves the flow of “qi” (pronounced “chee”), which is the life energy thought to sustain health and calm the mind; imbalances of qi are believed to lead to ill health.

Today, people practice tai chi for a variety of reasons, including physical activity, relaxation, and an overall sense of well-being. Tai chi is believed to promote memory, concentration, digestion, balance, and flexibility. It’s also thought to offer emotional and spiritual benefits. But is there any scientific evidence that tai chi is in fact beneficial to health?

A new study in the March 8, 2004 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine summarized research that examined the effects of tai chi in people with chronic conditions. The researchers found that although there is evidence that tai chi has physiological and psychological benefits, limitations in these studies prevent researchers from making firm conclusions about the benefits of tai chi.

About the Study

The researchers performed a literature search and identified 47 original studies evaluating the effects of tai chi in people with a chronic condition, such as heart failure, high blood pressure , arthritis , and multiple sclerosis . The studies had to be randomized controlled trials (9), non-randomized controlled trials (23), or observational studies (15).

The researchers documented the key findings of each study. They also evaluated the quality of the studies using a number of criteria, including a well-defined study question, blinding of researchers and participants (so neither knew which subjects were receiving which intervention), and an adequate follow-up rate.

They categorized the studies by the outcomes measured:

  • Cardiovascular and respiratory function
  • Balance control
  • Blood pressure
  • Musculoskeletal conditions
  • Psychological evaluation
  • Endocrine and immune system effects
  • Other

The Findings

Overall, tai chi was associated with physiological and psychosocial benefits. Specifically, the researchers found the following:

Improved Cardiovascular and Respiratory Function

Fourteen of the 17 studies that assessed the effects of tai chi on cardiovascular or respiratory condition found that tai chi was beneficial. The other three studies, however, indicated that tai chi may not be vigorous enough to improve cardiovascular fitness.

Decreased Blood Pressure

All four studies that evaluated the effect of tai chi on blood pressure linked tai chi with decreased blood pressure.

Improved Balance

Eleven studies measured the effects of tai chi on balance control and falls. Overall, tai chi was associated with improved balance control and decreased risk of falls.

Improved Musculoskeletal Condition

Four studies looked at the effects of tai chi on musculoskeletal conditions (i.e., arthritis, strength, flexibility). Overall, tai chi was associated with safe and effective improvements in these musculoskeletal outcomes.

Improved Psychological Condition

All five studies examining the effects of tai chi on psychological responses (i.e., depression , life satisfaction, stress) found that tai chi was beneficial.

Enhanced Endocrine and Immune System

One study found that tai chi was associated with increased blood levels of a number of hormones, including thyroid hormone, testosterone, and estradiol. Another study found that tai chi was associated with an increased number of T cells (cells involved in the immune response).

Other Benefits

Other studies suggested that tai chi enhanced self-efficacy and functional status, increased skin blood flow and temperature, and decreased nightmares.

While these results may seem promising, the researchers point out that most of the studies were limited by design. For instance, many of the studies were retrospective (measurements were taken after the outcomes occurred) and did not have control groups.

How Does This Affect You?

These findings indicate that tai chi may have a beneficial effect on both physiological and psychological health. Since most available studies on tai chi have design flaws, however, well-designed studies are needed to determine whether tai chi actually promotes health. Nevertheless, given tai chi’s safety, low cost, and numerous intangible benefits, waiting for these studies to be done is not necessarily in the best interest of patients with these chronic conditions.

This is not to say that tai chi should substitute for the beneficial interventions that do have scientific support for their effectiveness. Patients should certainly continue to pursue well-accepted strategies, such as diet, aerobic exercise, and medications, to manage their chronic diseases. Like most things in life, the key here is balance , a word virtually synonymous with the ancient art and practice of tai chi.