Move it (slowly) or lose it: Tai chi improves the mind as well as the body

The Bottom Line

  • Tai chi is practiced worldwide and is an appropriate physical activity for older adults due to the low risk of injury.
  • It is commonly believed to help promote general health and well-being and improve physical functioning.
  • Studies show that Tai chi can also help improve cognitive performance in older adults, specifically working memory.

To the uninitiated – especially those who subscribe to the “no pain, no gain” theory of fitness – the slow, gentle movements of tai chi may appear to be somewhat tame and ineffective. After all, how can you call it exercise if you’re not gasping for breath and sweating profusely, severely testing the moisture wicking qualities of those specially designed gym clothes?

Devoted followers all over the world know better. This mind-body practice that originated in China as a martial art is commonly described as “meditation in motion” and is widely believed to promote good health and well-being (1). The low-impact, slow and controlled movements and deep, natural breathing make it a particularly good physical activity for older adults due to the low risk of injury. Not only does tai chi have a low risk of injury, it may also reduce your chance of falling in the short- and long-term (2). Several studies have proven the effectiveness of tai chi in improving physical conditions in older adults such as poor balance (3) and cardiovascular disease (4) among others; now there is increasing evidence that it can also improve the mind.

A recent systematic review and meta-analysis looked at the impact of exercise on cognitive function –such as memory, working memory, and attention– in adults over 50 with or without mild cognitive impairment. The review included 39 studies, and one of the types of exercise tested was…you guessed it, tai chi! The exercise programs varied in length, frequency, duration, and intensity (5).

What the research tells us

Tai chi may be recommended as a safe, drug-free approach to improving brain function in older adults, specifically working memory. Although positive, the results of the review call for additional research (5).

Why might tai chi work? Well, it is suggested that the “multimodal” nature of tai chi may hold the key to cognitive improvements. For example, tai chi trains the body and mind through various means: moderate aerobic exercise; agility/mobility training; memorization of skills and routines; concentration exercises and meditation/relaxation techniques. It also provides opportunities for socializing, a factor many believe is associated with improved cognition in older adults (6).

Given the many potential benefits and the low risk of adverse effects, tai chi is an ideal activity for older adults – no moisture wicking sportswear needed!

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  1. Harvard Health Publications. The health benefits of tai chi [Internet]. Harvard University; 2009. Available at: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Womens_Health_Watch/2009/May/The-health-benefits-of-tai-chi
  2. Lomas-Vega R, Obrero-Gaitan E, Molina-Ortega FJ, et al. Tai chi for risk of falls. A meta-analysis. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2017; 65:2037-43. 
  3. Logghe IH, Verhagen AP, Rademaker AC, et al. The effects of tai chi on fall prevention, fear of falling and balance in older people: A meta-analysis. Prev Med. 2010; 51:222-7. 
  4. Yeh GY, Wang C, Wayne PM, et al. Tai chi exercise for patients with cardiovascular conditions and risk factors: A systematic review. J Cardiopulm Rehabil Prev. 2009; 29:152-60. 
  5. Northey JM, Cherbuin N, Pumpa KL, et al. Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: A systematic review with meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2018; 52(3):154-160. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2016-096587. 
  6. Park E, Gutchess A, Meade M, et al. Improving cognitive function in older adults: Nontraditional approaches. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2007; 62:45-52.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.

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