Tai Chi

Tai Chi is classified as a mind-body therapy according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Tai Chi is often referred to as a “moving meditation.” Mind-body therapies are a diverse group of techniques or practices that help engage both the mind and body in healing responses. In Tai Chi, participants purposefully move their bodies while maintaining continual awareness of their breath and posture. Tai Chi practice helps a person live in the present, paying attention to the movement and their breath, rather than thinking about what is going to happen in the future or what occurred in the past. 

Tai Chi began in China as a martial art, as a means of self-defense. Though there are conflicting accounts of its origins, popular belief credits a Taoist monk with developing 13 exercises that mimic animal movements. The Tai Chi movements, relaxed breathing, and mindful attention support the flow of qi or life force; which in turn helps to balance yin and yang, which are oppositional yet complementary forces in the body.

How do I talk to my healthcare provider about using Tai Chi?

As Tai Chi becomes a very popular alternative to conventional exercise programs, healthcare providers are increasingly open to Tai Chi. In fact, Tai Chi is often offered to patients in cancer centers and community centers across the U.S. as a reliable method to improve physical function. Therefore, talk to your provider about alternative ways to improve your physical stamina and to address your symptoms and ask whether they think that Tai Chi is an option for you. 

If you do decide to use Tai Chi, write down any changes you notice in your physical stamina, symptoms or overall well-being following each class. You can do this by keeping a log or journal which you should bring to any visits with your healthcare provider.

Have others used with cancer used Tai Chi?

Patients with cancer have benefited from the long term effects of Tai Chi. Tai Chi can easily be modified to the various physical capabilities of patients undergoing treatment for cancer and other disease processes. According to Edna Silva, RN and founder of the Tai Chi Center in Tucson:

  • “Special populations who are undergoing treatment such as chemotherapy need to pay particular attention to their bodies and not become fatigued. I often encourage people to use chairs to help with balance and can modify the movements so that they can be done sitting down, if needed”.

A National Health Survey in 2007 estimated that 2.3 million U.S. adults had used Tai Chi in the past 12 months. The numbers continue to grow today, as tai chi becomes more integrated into exercise and health care programs. Cancer patients participating in Tai Chi have stated:

  • “It helped me in the recovery of the mastectomy because I didn’t realize that they go behind and cut muscle and I had to build that back up, so the arm movements were wonderful.”
  • “I feel peaceful from the first moment…I feel calmer and energized.”
  • “I notice I’m sleeping through the whole night and dreaming. I never dream.”
  • “Tai Chi has not only kept my joints flowing nicely, but I am sleeping better.”

What is Tai Chi like?

If you are interested in learning Tai Chi but would like to see a session before you try it yourself, we invite you to watch a video featuring Ms. Edna Silva, RN, Tai Chi Instructor.

Why should I use Tai Chi?

The effects of Tai Chi in various patient populations have been studied in multiple clinical trials. There are currently over 35 systematic reviews that summarize the results across various studies. Conditions that have been studied include but are not limited to cancer, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, arthritis (rheumatoid and osteoarthritis), and diabetes.  While there have been some contradictory results, there does seem to be clear evidence that Tai Chi is effective to prevent falls, improve psychological wellbeing, and overall health status (Lee & Ernst, 2012). 

In the U.S., people often practice Tai Chi for its benefits as a low-impact, aerobic exercise. It enhances physical condition and strengthens muscles while aiding in coordination and flexibility.  Additionally, it has been helpful to improve balance and ease pain and stiffness and there are many reports of improvements in sleep and overall wellbeing. 

While studies continue, there is evidence that cancer patients experience benefits that include:

  • Improved quality of life
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Decreased risk of falls
  • Improved muscle strength
  • Flexibility
  • Balance
  • Improved function
  • Maintenance of bone density, post-menopausal
  • Improved mood
  • Improved alertness and attentiveness
  • Reduced stress and anxiety
  • Improved sleep

Although there is less convincing evidence, Tai Chi may also:

  • Lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular function
  • Improve immune function
  • Reduce pain associated with neuropathy
  • Improve memory

How does Tai Chi work?

Although researchers have yet to understand exactly how Tai Chi works, a recent article suggested that the physical effects among cancer survivors (improved strength and flexibility) are similar to the effects of any form of moderate aerobic, weight-bearing exercise. Improved mood and reduced stress could also be attributed to the release of hormones that occurs with exercise. However, there are others that suggest that the outcomes of Tai Chi are the result of circular, repetitive movements that are never forced and are similar to the movements found in nature. Muscles are relaxed; joints are not fully extended or bent; and the participant focuses on his or her bodily sensations while moving slowly breathing deeply. This connection of mind, body, and environment stimulates and balances the vital energies of the person, therefore improving wellbeing physically, emotionally, mentally, and functionally.

Is Tai Chi right for me?

Tai Chi is not to be used as a replacement for conventional therapy but instead used as a therapy that is complementary. As with any exercise program, it is best to consult your primary care provider prior to starting Tai Chi. However, Tai Chi typically involves gentle, unforced movements, and many Tai Chi instructors can modify the movements to accommodate an individual’s activity restrictions.

Tai Chi classes or sessions can range anywhere from $2.00 per session at a community center to $40-$60 for a set of classes over a 6-week period of time. Most insurance providers do not yet recognize Tai Chi for its therapeutic benefits and therefore it is not generally covered.

Brenda L. Barnhart , BSN Student , University of Arizona
Heather Chalon, MPH , Founder , Move Into Well-Being
Kaylyn Grammater , BSN Student , University of Arizona
Edna Silva, RN , Founder , The Center for Wu Style T’ai Chi Chuan
Expert Reviewers: 
Ruth E. Taylor-Piliae, PhD, RN, FAHA , Associate Professor