Flowing movement, deep breaths, and precise posture… no, we’re not talking about yoga! (Although yoga has bone health benefits too!) We’re talking about tai chi. An exercise often described as “meditation in motion”. But what is tai chi exactly?

Simply put, tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art practiced for self-defense and health. The term itself translates to “Grand Ultimate”. In Chinese culture, this term represents a philosophy concerning the balance of forces in the natural world (also known as the principle of Yin and Yang).

Tai chi is a low impact exercise that brings together mind and body. It involves a series of gentle, precise movements and specific postures. All while maintaining a deep focus on relaxation and breathing.

For centuries, the Chinese have practiced tai chi for its many health benefits. These benefits cover everything from fibromyalgia and arthritis relief to improved balance and coordination (hint: these abilities reduce the risk of falls!). But more on the benefits of tai chi in a moment.

Today, the exercise is popular worldwide. Tai chi is a safe, low-intensity, and low-cost workout which makes it a great option for older adults.

The beauty of tai chi rests in its adaptability. Whether you’re fit as a fiddle or you’re just starting out… whether you’re recovering from an injury or you’re in a wheelchair… you can still practice tai chi!

For starters, we’ve put together a quick guide on the different types of tai chi. Keep reading to find out what style is best for bone health!

What are the Different Styles of Tai Chi?

There are five different styles of tai chi. Each style dates back to a different time period. Some styles are better suited to health while others are more for self-defense.

Here’s a quick summary of each style:

Chen-style
Started between: 1580-1660
Movement: Emphasizes strength and quick, skipping movements.
Intensity: High impact.

Yang-style
Started between: 1799-1872
Movement: Slow, gentle, and extensive stretching movement.
Intensity: Low impact.

Sun-style
Started between: 1861-1932
Movement: Quick and compact movements.
Intensity: Moderate impact.

Wu or Wu (Hao)-style
Started between: 1812-1880
Movement: Focus on balance and compact, subtle movements.
Intensity: Moderate impact.

Wu-style
Started between: 1870-1942
Movement: Distinctive, small circle hand technique.
Intensity: High impact.

 

So which style should you choose? Well, Yang-style is the most common choice for exercise programs geared towards recovery. However, some research shows that Chen- and Sun-style have bone health benefits too!  

In fact, Chen-style is the closest thing to a weight-bearing exercise. The powerful movements involved in Chen-style are high-impact compared to Sun- and Yang-style.  

That said, if you’re thinking about trying Tai Chi, you should talk to an instructor to decide which style is best for you. It’s also a good idea to consult with your healthcare professional before starting any new exercise regimen.

If you’re not sure who to talk to, don’t worry! We have some resources for you a little further down the page.

But first, let’s talk benefits!

Tai Chi Benefits for Older Adults

If you’re looking for a form of exercise with both mental and physical benefits, tai chi is an excellent option. It’s a time-tested and rewarding practice… not to mention a lot of fun!

Many studies have looked into the benefits of tai chi for older adults. Now, it’s worth noting that not all studies are made equal. But a lot of research does support the theory that tai chi is good for your health (your bone health included!).

Here, we’ll discuss the science-backed benefits of tai chi:

Slows Bone Loss

Because tai chi is a gentle form of exercise, it’s well suited to older adults. In particular, those who suffer from bone loss and are at risk of fracture. So it makes sense that researchers would ask the question, “Is tai chi good for bone density?”

Several studies have looked into this question and come back with a yes (and some “most likelies”)!

The most notable of these studies appeared in Physician and Sportsmedicine. Researchers looked at whether a regular tai chi habit can slow bone loss in women over menopausal age. The study followed 132 women who were on average 54-years-old.

These women practiced tai chi for 45 minutes a day, five days a week, for a year. The result? Their bone loss was 3.5 times slower than women who didn’t practice tai chi! (This improvement showed in their bone mineral density.)

In another study, researchers conducted a systematic review to discern whether tai chi could help slow bone loss. (A systematic review is when researchers analyze the results from a curated selection of studies on a topic!)

This particular review looked at only randomized controlled trials (RCTs). They found 20 studies that met their criteria. (That the research was recent: a peer-reviewed RCT published between January 1990 to December 2016. And relevant: tai chi was a main intervention for bone health, and at least one measure was related to BMD.)

They compiled the results from these 20 studies and came to a favorable conclusion! Their analysis suggested that tai chi helped slow bone loss in the lower back and the upper thigh bone of participants.

While this research is promising, it’s by no means conclusive. Many of the studies they looked at lasted only 12 weeks. This is of note because a full bone remodeling cycle is at least 24 weeks.

So keep in mind that some anomalies may exist as a result of study design. In particular, the length of a study in relation to a full bone remodeling cycle. But the majority of quality research suggests tai chi is beneficial for bone health!

It’s important to remember that exercise alone is highly unlikely to increase bone density. For the best results, tai chi should be incorporated into a lifestyle that includes a nutrient-rich diet and low exposure to toxins. To learn more about how exercise affects bone density, visit our exercises page!

How does this apply to osteoporosis?

The research looks positive when it comes to tai chi and bone density. We know that exercise alone can’t increase bone density, but tai chi does appear to slow bone loss. Common sense also suggests that tai chi is good for osteoporosis. It’s a weight-bearing exercise after all! It involves supporting your body weight through your feet, legs, hands, and arms. And weight-bearing exercises help strengthen bones!

Reduces Fracture Risk

The slow, measured movements of tai chi promote body awareness and balance. These qualities are key for reducing the risk of fracture!

It makes perfect sense. The more aware you are of your body and the more balance you have, the less likely you are to fall. Therefore the less likely you are to suffer a fracture! Let’s have a look at some research to back this claim.

A randomized control trial compared Parkinson’s patients who practiced tai chi, resistance training, or stretching. They found that tai chi training seemed to increase balance and reduce falls (note that resistance training also reduced falls!).

In a large scale study, researchers looked at 159 intervention trials to see what types of exercise could reduce fall incidence in older people. Most of these trials compared an intervention like tai chi with no intervention (or an intervention not expected to reduce falls!)In the end, only a select few interventions succeeded at reducing fall risk. Group and home-based exercise programmes and home safety interventions helped. And tai chi significantly reduced the risk of falling!

How does this apply to osteoporosis?

For someone with osteoporosis, a fall can be devastating. Practicing regular tai chi can help you develop better balance and body awareness. And both these things can help you avoid a tumble. The fact that tai chi can reduce the risk of falling (and therefore fracture) is reason enough to take it up!

Arthritis Relief

Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis can cause unbearable joint pain. But research indicates that exercise can help alleviate arthritis symptoms.

In fact, arthritis foundations all over the world support tai chi as a natural treatment option. We have the following research to thank for their support.

In a randomized clinical trial, researchers looked at the effects of 12 weeks of tai chi on older women with osteoarthritis. They compared the tai chi group to a control group who didn’t perform the exercise.

They concluded that tai chi helped improve arthritic symptoms, balance, and physical functioning! But they noted that a longer study with more subjects is needed to confirm the use of tai chi for arthritis management.

Nine systematic reviews [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9] have also looked into tai chi for osteoarthritis relief. The two largest reviews included nine RCTs! All eight reviews reported that tai chi may relieve arthritis pain.

Though more research is needed, the evidence that tai chi relieves arthritis symptoms is starting to stack up!

How does this apply to osteoporosis?

There’s a well-established link between arthritis and osteoporosis. In fact, one in four people with rheumatoid arthritis will also develop osteoporosis. In our article on natural remedies for arthritis, we explained that the link between the two is inflammation. So, an exercise that relieves arthritis may, by extension, be beneficial for osteoporosis!

Reduces Stress

Tai chi’s moniker, “meditation in motion”, says it all. The deep breathing, the repetitive motion, the single-minded focus… it’s easy to understand how tai chi is good for stress. But let’s take a look at some proof anyway!

In an RCT, researchers looked at whether 12 weeks of tai chi reduced anxiety in stressed but otherwise healthy people. They compared a tai chi group with an exercise group and a wait-list group. The tai chi group practiced at home after a learning period while the exercise group engaged in supervised workouts at a fitness center.

To determine stress levels, researchers looked at several measures including: the State Trait Anxiety Inventory, Perceived Stress Scale, blood pressure and heart rate variability, visual analogue scale, and Short Form 36.  

Their conclusion? Tai chi reduced stress levels and provided a safe, cost-effective, and less physically demanding alternative to other forms of exercise!

How does this apply to osteoporosis?

The fear of fracture. The fear that you might lose your independence. The fear that you might become a burden to your family. These are just a few of the fears that come with osteoporosis. Psychological and mental stress can weigh heavily on a person suffering from bone loss. If practicing tai chi can help relieve that stress, then it’s definitely worth a go!

Enhances Sleep

Lying in bed, sleepless, running through your fears and worries in your head… we’ve all been there! Sleep can be a real pain at times. The good news is that exercise can help.  

Tai chi, in particular, enhances sleep. It makes sense that a practice that relieves stress would also be good for sleep. And there’s some research to back this assumption.

In an RCT, researchers looked into the effects of tai chi on sleep quality, balance, and cognitive performance. Participants in this study were between 60 and 79 years old and sleep quality was measured using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI).

They were divided into two groups: a tai chi group and a control group. The tai chi group participated in a six month training program while the control group was instructed to maintain their routine.

In the end, the tai chi group reported better scores across the board! The researchers concluded that tai chi is indeed beneficial for sleep quality.

A systematic review published in February of 2019 supports this theory. In this review, researchers evaluated the effect of mind-body therapies (MBTs) on sleep quality. These MBTs included tai chi, meditation, qigong, and yoga.

After analyzing 49 relevant studies, researchers found that MBTs significantly improved sleep quality!

How does this apply to osteoporosis?

It can be difficult to get a good night’s rest when you’re stressed or suffering from aches and pains. And osteoporosis can cause both these things. Yet getting good quality sleep is crucial for overall health (bone health included!). So if practicing tai chi helps you get better sleep, that’s a win for you and your bones.

Fibromyalgia Relief

An estimated 10 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain caused by fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is widely misunderstood, and there is no cure yet.

But research is starting to dig deeper! And there are some natural options that can help ease symptoms. Tai chi is one of these options. Many people with fibromyalgia practice tai chi for its soothing effects. And there’s research to prove that it works!

In an RCT, researchers looked at how tai chi stacked up against aerobic exercise for fibromyalgia relief. They also looked at whether the effectiveness of tai chi depended on duration.

In the end, tai chi resulted in similar or greater improvements than aerobic exercise. Participants who practiced tai chi for longer experienced the greatest improvement. Researchers concluded that tai chi may be considered a therapeutic option for fibromyalgia.

Other researchers came to a similar conclusion in a single-blind, randomized trial. In this trial, they compared tai chi with wellness education and stretching for fibromyalgia. They followed 66 participants for 12-weeks to come to their conclusions.

They found that the tai chi group had clinically important improvements! They stated that while more research is needed, tai chi may be a useful treatment for fibromyalgia.

How does this apply to osteoporosis?

If you suffer from fibromyalgia, you may be at risk of developing osteoporosis. This is because the drugs commonly prescribed to ease fibromyalgia symptoms can wreak havoc on your bones. If this is the case for you, then practicing tai chi may help you maintain your bone density (and stave off osteoporosis!).

How Can You Apply this to Your Life?

Now that we’ve covered the many benefits of tai chi, it’s time to get started! As promised, here are some easy steps and resources to help you make tai chi a part of your life.

Find a Qualified Teacher

The first step is to find a good teacher. Someone who can help you choose the right style of tai chi and explain the movements. Check to see if your local community center, gym, college, or fitness center offers classes!

You might want to try a few classes to see what suits your fitness level. And just like yoga, drop-in classes are a great way of finding a teacher you like! It’s important to find a teacher who will take the time to show you how to do each move properly. That way you can safely follow along and get the most out of your practice.

If you’re still not sure where to look, the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association database includes over 2000 tai chi teachers… just enter your location to find a class near you!

Practice Regularly

Instead of trying to do several hours on the weekend, try practicing for 10 to 20 minutes every day. This way you can avoid overextending yourself.

When you practice tai chi daily, you’ll also get the most out of benefits like stress and pain relief and enhanced sleep.

Make a commitment to practice tai chi every day, even for a few minutes. After a little while, it will become a habit!

Dress Appropriately

Make sure you wear the right clothing for your tai chi class. Loose-fitting lightweight cotton is best. It will allow you to move freely. It will also allow your skin to breathe and absorb sweat. Tight clothing like yoga pants and leotards aren’t worn for tai chi. It’s believed that this type of clothing restricts the flow of Qi through the body.

As for your shoes, you can practice in bare feet or wear comfortable lightweight shoes with a thin sole. Many martial arts shops sell shoes designed for tai chi. These specialty shoes are comfortable with broad base support to help you maintain balance.

Note that you don’t need to purchase special clothing to practice tai chi! To start, just wear something comfortable. But if you’d like to learn more about dressing for tai chi, here is a blog that discusses the topic (with some examples of suitable tai chi wear).  

Go At Your Own Pace

Like with any exercise, it’s important to go easy on yourself to start. You’re learning a new skill! Some moves and postures might be confusing or challenging at first. Stay focused and stick with it. You’ll improve over time with guidance from a qualified teacher.

If you’re unsure or don’t understand a move, always ask your instructor for help. This way you won’t overextend yourself. And it’s what your instructor is there for after all!

Want to Learn More?

We hope you’ve found this page useful, and that you’ll consider trying tai chi!

If you’d like to learn more about tai chi, here are some additional resources to check out:

  • The Tai Chi for Health Institute is a non-profit organization. Their mission is to empower people to improve their health and wellness through tai chi. And their site provides a wealth of information on the history and benefits of tai chi!
  • In addition to its class finder tool, the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association is a useful resource for learning more about the practice. They even have a page dedicated to the tai chi lifestyle for seniors.
  • The Arthritis Foundation considers tai chi a great form of exercise for pain and stress relief. On their site, you’ll find free tai chi instructional videos as well as a resource finder that can help you locate a class in your area!
  • Taoist Tai Chi is a well-established tai chi group that holds classes in Canada, the US, and abroad. Here you’ll find information on the benefits of tai chi as well as some inspiring testimonials!
  • This helpful video shares a tai chi routine for osteoporosis. It goes through eight steps to better bones in just 10 minutes. So even on busy days, you should be able to get a practice in!

If you do decide to try tai chi, remember to take your time! Enjoy the learning process. We hope your practice grants you serenity and renewed health.