Could Tai Chi offer the same benefits as more vigorous exercise?

We all know that exercise is beneficial for our health, but many of us don’t really enjoy working up a sweat, while others simply can’t.

However, recent evidence suggests there may be a surprising solution: tai chi. Practised for centuries, its slow and graceful movements are reported to be good for both body and mind. But could doing something so gentle really be as effective as a bout of more vigorous exercise?

The experiment

We teamed up with Dr Sarah Aldred, Dr Jet Veldhuijzen van Zanten and Nor Fadila Kasim from the University of Birmingham.

They took a group of volunteers aged between 65 and 75, none of whom did regular exercise. Half of them were enrolled in a Zumba class for 12 weeks, while the other half did tai chi for 12 weeks.

At the beginning, middle and end of the 12 weeks, Jet, Sarah and Nor recorded the volunteers’ blood pressure and measured the flexibility of their blood vessels using ultrasound. The more flexible your blood vessels, the healthier they are.

They also measured the levels of antioxidants and other chemical markers of stress and inflammation in the volunteers’ blood. Although stress and inflammation may sound bad, they’re actually a healthy response to exercise and lie behind many of its benefits.

The results

As might be expected, our Zumba group were all fitter after 12 weeks. Their blood vessels were more elastic and their blood pressure had dropped. Their blood results improved in line with people undertaking an exercise regime.

More surprisingly, the results from the tai chi group also showed similar benefits to the more rigorous Zumba group, with improvements in blood biomarkers, blood pressure and vessel flexibility.

The answer as to why tai chi might have similar benefits may rest in the fact that tai chi might not be as gentle as it seems. Previous studies undertaken by Sarah and Jet show that people who practise tai chi have a similar rise in heart rate to those doing moderate intensity exercise.

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