IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why tai chi is the most underrated workout for relieving stress and improving sleep

Typically popular among seniors, the meditative movement has wide-ranging health benefits that may just convince you to add it into your own fitness routine.
Image: People practice tai chi in park.
Practicing tai chi outdoors provides even greater stress-relieving benefits. kali9 / Getty Images file

It’s pretty well-known that exercise is one of the best ways to curb stress and boost your mood. (Just think about how relaxed and happy you feel after a yoga class, kickboxing session or run in the park.)

In fact, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, participants, who all had anxiety associated with chronic illnesses, significantly reduced their worry when they exercised regularly for a period of three to 12 weeks. Fitness sessions lasting over 30 minutes had the biggest effects on anxiety.

Tai Chi: The Major Stress-Reliever You Didn’t Know You Needed

Pinterest picked tai chi as one of its top 100 trends for 2018.

One of the best — yet most underrated — exercises for stress relief (and your health overall) is tai chi. If you’ve ever seen a group of people moving slowly and gracefully together at your local park, there’s a good chance they’re practicing tai chi, which combines low impact movements and meditation for a body-mind workout. Pinterest picked tai chi as one of its top 100 trends for 2018, so it’s safe to say it won’t be flying under the radar for much longer.

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that has been practiced for about 2,000 years, says Dee Ogilvy, who has practiced it for more than 20 years herself and now runs her own tai chi program, while also teaching it as a part of Missouri State University’s Employee Wellness Program.

Tai chi was originally developed for self-defense, says Aideen Turner, physical therapist and CEO of Virtual Physical Therapists, but it’s evolved into “a gentle way of moving and stretching,” says Turner. “Positions flow into the next without a pause so that the body is in constant motion. It’s very low impact and causes minimal stress on muscles and joints.” Deep breathing is also an important part of tai chi, she adds.

Turner says the majority of people who practice tai chi are seniors — you lose flexibility and balance as you get older, and tai chi is a way to get moving again without pounding on your joints. That being said, it’s something someone of all ages can benefit from doing, says Turner. Especially if you're someone who is pounding the pavement training for a race or frequently partaking in high-intensity workouts — slowing down and reconnecting through tai chi may be a welcomed addition to your routine (and break on your joints).

In a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers found that participants who practiced tai chi regularly had a decreased rate of mortality, similar to the effects seen from walking and jogging in other studies. Those who exercised for five to six hours a week saw the biggest benefits.

That’s far from the only scientific evidence to sypport the benefits of tai chi. A study published in the Journal of Rheumatology found that patients with osteoarthritis improved their symptoms and balance after practicing tai chi for 12 weeks. Another study, published in PLoS One, found that tai chi helped improve cardio function in otherwise healthy adults.

The effects of meditation are even greater when paired with movement — having to be present and focus on your movements and breathing helps bring on the relaxation.

As far as tai chi’s positive effects on our mind, it’s mostly thanks to the meditation component of the exercise, says Ogilvy. A small study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology reported that brief mindfulness meditation (three, 25 minute sessions) minimized psychological stress. Ogilvy notes that the effects are even greater when movement and meditation are paired together — having to be present and focus on your movements and breathing helps bring on the relaxation.

It makes sense then that tai chi could also improve your quality of sleep, says Turner. Research in Clinical Interventions in Aging saw that older adults with cognitive impairment and frequent sleep disturbances were able to snooze better when they incorporated tai chi into their lives.

Additionally, tai chi’s combo of movement and meditation provides mental clarity, says Ogilvy. “Tai chi increases the communication of your mind and body,” she says. “Seniors who practice tai chi can regain the lost brain elasticity which is normal in aging,” she says. A study published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science suggested that tai chi has positive effects on cognitive function and memory in older adults.

The Beginner’s Guide to Tai Chi

Ready to give tai chi a try? Follow these tips for beginners.

  • Choose your tai chi style. There are five different styles to choose from — Ogilvy practices the Yang style, which is the most popular and consists of 108 sequences of movements. Each movement sequence has five or six different parts to it, and each part flows slowly and continuously into the next, says Ogilvy. When Ogilvy teaches a class, she usually focuses on one movement sequence. She’ll have her class repeat the sequence until they grasp it pretty well and then move on to incorporating the meditation component. “You have to feel comfortable with moving before you can get to calming the mind,” says Ogilvy.
  • Be picky with whose class you take. Since there’s no tai chi alliance, it can be difficult to determine just how qualified your instructor is. Ogilvy says you shouldn’t be shy about asking a teacher questions about their training before taking a class. “I know some people who’ve taken two classes and are teaching tai chi,” she says. “You have to find a teacher who has actually studied tai chi. This is thousands of years’ worth of knowledge that can only be passed on by people who study this all their lives. I feel like after 28 years, I’m still a beginner.”
  • Try an outdoor class. Tai chi classes are commonly offered at senior centers, says Turner, as well as outdoor parks. As a bonus, being outside has mental health benefits, too. That’s what scientists noticed while working research published in the Journal of Affective Disorders. Study participants, who all had major depressive disorder, showed mood improvements after walking in nature.
  • Don’t get discouraged if at first you don’t succeed. “Tai chi is complex,” says Ogilvy. “But that complexity is why it’s working in the long run, so don’t give up — just keep trying to pick up something.” Some people pick up the choreography quickly but may not be able to master the meditation, while others may be able to relax their minds but have difficulty moving. “If someone comes and sits for six months and does nothing but sit but they show up every time, they’re still going to get something out of tai chi,” says Ogilvy.
  • Practice it regularly. Turner suggests 20 minutes of tai chi a day at least three days a week for maximum benefits. “The more you move, the better off you are,” she says. “Tai chi is a great form of exercise because it’s safe, it’s fun, and it gets the whole body moving again. Plus, you’re not going to risk another injury because of the smooth, gentle rhythmic movements.”


Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.