A form of martial art that emphasizes slow, smooth, flowing movements. Tai chi, which originated in China in the 16th century, integrates physical postures with meditation. The premise of tai chi is that it encourages the free flow of life energy, called chi in Eastern medicine. From the Western perspective the gentle nature of this structured exercise belies its ability to stretch and tone muscles, improving overall fitness, joint flexibility, and balance. The meditation aspect provides relaxation and stress relief. As in all martial arts, breath control and breathing exercises are essential components of tai chi.
Many health clubs, community centers, and senior centers offer classes in tai chi. Although the movements are easy to learn and perform, many people enjoy the social environment of doing them in groups. There are many different movements that combine into sequences called forms; in a class or group there is a leader who presents an organization of forms for a 20- or 30-minute session. The group leader can help individuals adapt tai chi movements and forms to accommodate specific limitations or needs. Groups often meet outdoors, weather permitting, in parks and other areas where the movements can interact with the natural environment. Doing tai chi regularly (several times a week to daily) provides the most benefit.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and others have conducted controlled studies of tai chi’s health benefits, concluding that it is a generally safe and effective way especially for seniors to improve and maintain mobility reducing risks related to poor motor skills such as falls. It is believed that tai chi probably provides the same mobility and balance benefits in those with Parkinson’s.