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!