How to Be a Healthier, Happier, Better-Balanced Woman
If you could take a pill that would help reduce your risk of heart disease, strengthen your muscles and bones, improve your mood, boost immunity, support mental function, and ease anxiety, would you take it?
Not a hard question, right? Most women would jump at the chance to easily improve their lives this way.
Unfortunately, there is no such pill, but there is something almost as easy and certainly more enjoyable that has been shown in studies to do all these things and more, with unique benefits specifically for women.
All you have to do is stand tall and perform a series of slow, concentrated movements while focusing on your breath. Doesn’t sound too difficult, and according to 2015 statistics, about 3.65 million Americans are already doing it. If you’re not one of them, here are ten reasons why you should be.
Tai Chi is Good for Women’s Health
We’re talking about tai chi, a mind-body practice that originated as a martial art in China. As with yoga, there are many different forms of tai chi, but they all involve a series of controlled, smooth movements paired with a focus on the breath that creates a sort of moving meditation.
The practice originated in China as a way to fight and defend oneself, but has now evolved into a gentle form of exercise connected with a number of health benefits. The philosophy behind the movements centers on the Chinese concept of “chi,” which is the vital life force that provides energy to body and mind. The movements are said to help stimulate and encourage circulation of chi within the body, increasing health and vitality.
Tai chi requires regular practice, as the movements are very exact and must be executed correctly for optimal benefits. Students learn balance, alignment, and rhythm as they go through the movements, and must also bring the mind’s focus to what the body is doing, which is why the exercise has a meditative effect.
It doesn’t matter how old, fit, or strong you are—anyone can do tai chi, and experience improvements with practice. The exercise has been found to have health benefits for all ages, even the elderly. Sometimes called “the perfect exercise” because of its versatility, it has a very low risk of injury and is accessible to everyone.
10 Health Benefits of Tai Chi for Women
If you’ve thought about trying tai chi before but you haven’t done it yet, here are ten reasons why you should give it a shot today. If you’re already doing it, below are ten ways it’s likely benefitting your health.
1. Improves Balance and Flexibility
Tai chi really shines when it comes to improving balance and flexibility. We naturally find balance more difficult as we age, and that’s dangerous, because it increases risk of falls, and falls are known to severely sabotage quality of life for seniors.
Take a minute right now and see if you can stand on one foot for a full minute (without holding onto anything or putting your other foot down). Researchers found in a 2016 study that participants in their 30s and 40s could manage it, but those in their 50s could go for only about 45 seconds. People in their 60s made it to 40 seconds, while those in their 70s went only 27 seconds. By the time they were 80, most people could stand on one foot for only 12 seconds.
Turns out that our ability to balance well declines with age unless we make an effort to maintain it. Just like you need to lift weights to maintain muscle strength, you need to do something to maintain your balance to reduce your risk of falling as you get older. And don’t wait until you’re in your 60s or 70s—just as we gradually lose muscle strength over time, we lose our balance over time, too, so it’s a lot easier to stay on top of it if you start earlier.
Tai chi is the perfect way to reclaim and retain your ability to balance. Dr. Peter Wayne, research director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told Harvard Women’s Health Watch that tai chi can reduce falls in seniors by 45 percent. A 2012 study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that even for people with Parkinson’s disease, which specifically impairs balance, tai chi helped improve balance and reduce falls.
2. Puts You in a Better Mood
Tai chi can help relieve stress, ease anxiety, and reduce your risk of depression. According to the Mayo Clinic, the exercise “promotes serenity through gentle, flowing movements.” In a 2011 study, researchers reported that psychological benefits have been found in several studies on tai chi, and that “a number of substantial findings dominate this category.”
When tai chi was compared to standard care or psychosocial support, for example, it was found to be superior at helping to improve depression. Participants reported in other studies as well that their mood improved when they were practicing tai chi. Patients with osteoarthritis reported improvements in depression, anxiety, and stress after tai chi therapy.
Tai chi is so effective at reducing stress that it actually lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol and reduced heart rate in some studies. Harvard Medical School instructor Catherine Kerr told the Harvard Magazine that tai chi made her feel “lighter on her feet,” and “in a better mood all around.”
3. Strengthens Your Muscles
Health experts today recommend that women practice strength training at least two times a week along with their regular aerobic exercise to keep muscles strong, protect joint health, and sustain balance and confidence. Tai chi can help improve muscle strength and endurance because of its concentrated, slow and careful movements. Regular practice helps strengthen and tone muscles in the arms, shoulders, back, legs, and abdomen.
In a 2008 study, for instance, researchers found that participants who regularly practiced tai chi had better strength and endurance in their legs than those who were sedentary. A later 2014 study found similar results particularly in women—continuous practice of tai chi 40 minutes a day for 8-12 months had a greater effect on lower limb muscle strength than dancing or walking.
Tai chi seems especially beneficial for the knees, which is important for women, as they are vulnerable in this joint. (See our previous article: “Is Knee Surgery Inevitable for Women?”) Keeping the surrounding muscles strong is key to supporting the knee joint, and studies show that tai chi helps particularly with knee extensor muscle strength in women.
4. Boosts Immunity
Want to avoid the common cold, flu, and other similar infections? Tai chi can help you with that. Scientists have discovered increases in immune-related blood markers in those who practice tai chi, and have also reported increased immune response to vaccines among tai chi practitioners.
Shingles is something we all have to be aware of as we get older. Caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, it tends to raise its ugly head as the immune system weakness. There is a vaccine for it, but it is effective at preventing shingles only about 50 percent of the time.
In a 2007 study, researchers studied 112 healthy older adults aged 59 to 86, and found that those who spent 16 weeks practicing tai chi before being vaccinated for shingles had a stronger immune response to the vaccine, and also showed significant improvements in vitality and mental health.
5. Supports Strong Bones
Osteoporosis is a major concern for postmenopausal women. As our estrogen levels go down, our bones become less efficient at repairing and renewing themselves. As a result, they lose density and become thinner and more fragile. Osteoporosis means “porous bone,” and can increase risk of fractures.
Weight-bearing exercise helps to challenge our bones and stimulate bone repair and regeneration. Tai chi is a weight-bearing exercise, as you are supporting your own weight as you go through the movements.
Several studies have reported that regular tai chi practice can help improve bone density in postmenopausal women. The key is to stay with it for the long-term. In other words, performing tai chi for a few weeks and then stopping will likely have little effect on bone health, but implementing a regular practice in your daily life will.
For the best results, scientists recommend combining resistance training with tai chi—doing tai chi on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, for example, and lifting weights on Monday and Wednesday.
6. Relieves Pain
If you struggle with headaches, fibromyalgia, or back pain, tai chi may help provide relief. In 2007, scientists reported that participants who regularly suffered from tension headaches who practiced tai chi for 15 weeks experienced significant improvement. They also felt like they had more energy and were happier overall.
Some studies have indicated that tai chi may help relieve back pain, too. Twelve weeks of tai chi helped ease lower back pain caused by muscle strain, and a ten-week tai chi program helped reduce bothersome long-term low back pain.
Fibromyalgia is a unique type of chronic pain condition that can resist many types of treatment. Tai chi, though, may help where other methods fail. A number of studies have found that it helps reduce pain and improve function in women with fibromyalgia. The results have been so positive that some European countries have started to include tai chi in their regular treatment guides for fibromyalgia.
Again, it takes time. A six-month trial, for example, showed a decrease in chronic pain after only four-to-six months, so it’s important to be patient with it and just to keep practicing on a regular basis.
7. Reduces Risk of Heart Disease
Most any type of exercise will help protect your heart, but tai chi is unique in that it has a specific effect on blood pressure, which is a major risk factor in heart disease. It helps lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and in some cases was just as effective as aerobic exercise!
In one study, for example, scientists had participants take part in a 12-week aerobic exercise program or a light intensity tai chi program. In both cases, the adults exercised four days a week for 30 minutes a day. Scientists measured blood pressure levels every two weeks. Results showed that both types of exercise had similar reducing effects on blood pressure.
Tai chi can also calm a rapid heart rate and improve other biomarkers of heart health, including levels of fats in the blood (like cholesterol and triglycerides). In patients who are already dealing with heart failure, tai chi has been found to help improve mood and quality of life.
8. Keeps Your Brain Sharp
We all want to avoid dementia as we age, and most of us would also like a little mental boost for our lives right now. Tai chi may help on both fronts. At least five study reviews have reported that tai chi improved cognitive performance—now! It has positive affects on attention and processing speed, and helps improve learning and memory, providing an overall boost to brainpower.
Tai chi also has a “brain maintenance” effect, helping protect the brain from changes that can lead to dementia. In a 2015 study, researchers reported that tai chi exercise, when paired with a healthy Mediterranean diet, improved cognition and memory, and could help slow cognitive aging. Another study that same year found that compared with other physical activities, tai chi “shows potential protective effect on healthy adults’ cognitive ability.”
9. Boosts Self-Esteem and Confidence
How people feel about themselves often determines how active they are, how well they eat, and how healthy they feel. Tai chi can boost self-esteem and confidence, leading to more healthy actions down the road.
When compared to other types of exercise, tai chi has been found to improve things like social relationships, perceived physical health, and one’s overall relationship to one’s environment. These are key factors needed for long-term health: a sense of confidence, ability to carry out daily activities, and a sense of belonging.
Researchers say that “self-efficacy” is the “confidence a person feels” when performing daily activities, and their perceived ability to overcome obstacles in their life. This characteristic is often associated directly with healthy behaviors and benefits. Tai chi has been found in several studies to improve self-efficacy, and to help people feel more like they can manage their own lives.
10. Improves Quality of Life
No matter who you are or what other health issues you may be dealing with, tai chi is likely to improve your overall quality of life. We have a lot of evidence of this, in study after study of participants with multiple sclerosis, cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart failure, insomnia, kidney problems, arthritis, and more.
Because tai chi is so gentle, most anyone can do it, even those who are in pain, elderly, or going through medical treatments.
How Women Can Get Started on Tai Chi Today
If you’re convinced it’s time to get some tai chi in your life, it’s not hard to get started. The good news is you don’t need fancy equipment or gear—just put on some comfortable clothes and you’re good to go. Do check with your doctor first to be sure that you don’t have any conditions that would interfere with the exercise.
The best way to begin is to take a class from a qualified instructor. Check in your local area for a beginner’s introduction to the practice. Be willing to try different styles and teachers until you find one that works best for you. Remember you can always go and just observe the class before signing up for it if you like.
If you can’t find a class or if you’d rather learn at home, try one of the many DVDs out there that you can use in the privacy of your living room. Be sure to have a full-length mirror present so you can check your body alignment, and proceed slowly so you can learn the movements correctly.
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