The health benefits of tai chi become apparent when looking beyond tai chi as just an art of self-defense. Tai chi chuan is recognized as the most difficult of all the martial arts to use successfully in self-defense. This is primarily because of the problems in developing and applying the many internal energies such as chin. Even learning to understand these energies is a lengthy process.
Fortunately, tai chi is an extremely interesting and enjoyable art to practice. And requirements for equipment and space are absolutely minimal: Tai chi can be practiced almost anywhere that a few square yards of space are available. Most importantly, the health benefits of tai chi are readily apparent to practitioners from the very beginning of training.
Tai chi is a gentle art, so gentle that people of almost any age or physical condition can undertake it. In fact, many prominent teachers began their careers teaching tai chi late in life.
Today, many different types of tai chi organizations have sprung up, each specializing in unique forms. Some of these groups have even designed instructional techniques specifically for older people, for whom tai chi has been shown to be particularly beneficial, promoting balance control, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness.
In the modern age, tai chi chuan will likely be most valued for its contributions to good health rather than its martial arts applications. Researchers are conducting special studies not only on the health benefits of tai chi, but also on a number of traditional Chinese medical treatments including chi kung, acupuncture, and herbal remedies.
The reason for this interest is clear: Many of these exercises and treatments are inexpensive, easily accessible by the general public, and, quite often, remarkably effective. Another reason is that researchers are trying to establish, in a definitive way, exactly which of the many claims of traditional medicine work and, if so, why they do.
Practitioners believe that tai chi's fluid spiraling and bending movements, as well as its breathing and meditation components, massage the internal organs, releasing them from damaging constrictions brought about by stress, poor posture, and difficult working conditions; aid the exchange of gases in the lungs; help the digestive system to work better; increase a sense of calmness and awareness; and improve balance.
Some of the other purported health benefits of tai chi practice include improved circulation, breathing, and flexibility; stress management; relief from high blood pressure, back pain, and insomnia; and better overall health.
There is still a shortage of scientific data on tai chi and its physical effects. Modern clinical research is really just beginning in this field. In the Western world, the art has gained popularity only in the last few decades. And in China, not everything has to be proven in a clinical study before it is accepted by the public.
Since the health benefits of tai chi are obvious to those who practice it, this informal type of evidence has, generally speaking, proved satisfactory. The Chinese, then, have not had any particular reason to conduct clinical studies on the effects of tai chi.
While once only private research centers studied the healing effects of tai chi, now there is U.S. government-sponsored research, too. The National Institute for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCAAM), an agency within the National Institutes of Health, was created in October 1998 to explore complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science. NCAAM is sponsoring a number of studies to find out more about tai chi's effects, how it works, and diseases and conditions for which it may be helpful.
Current research includes studies on tai chi's impact on the immune system and stress levels of women recently diagnosed with breast cancer, the effect of tai chi on physical and quality-of-life factors for people with chronic but stable heart failure, tai chi's impact on physical and psychological factors related to osteoarthritis of the knee, and tai chi's effect on physical function and immunity in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
Tai chi has recently been shown to boost older adults' immunity to the varicella-zoster virus that causes shingles as much as the varicella vaccine can, according to the results of a study supported by NCCAM and the NIA and reported in April 2007.
The study also found that tai chi enhanced the protective effects of the vaccine. The randomized, controlled clinical trial enlisted 112 healthy adults aged 59 to 86 to participate in a 16-week program of either tai chi or a health education program that provided 120 minutes of weekly instruction.
Periodic blood tests performed after the end of the programs revealed that tai chi alone increased participants' immunity as much as the vaccine typically produces in 30- to 40-year old adults, and that tai chi combined with the vaccine produced about a 40 percent increase in immunity over that achieved by the vaccine alone.
The study showed that the tai chi group's rate of increase in immunity during the 25-week study was double that of the control group. In addition to the improved immunity, those in the tai chi group also reported significant improvements in physical functioning, bodily pain, vitality, and mental health.