Tai chi, an ancient Chinese martial art known for its graceful, flowing movements, has long been cherished for its health benefits. But recent research takes the benefits of tai chi one step further. According to the study, the martial art can support cognitive function, especially in older adults with mild cognitive impairment. In particular, one modified form of tai chi, aptly termed ‘cognitively enriched tai chi,’ offers promising results.
Healthy body, healthy mind
Tai chi is a gentle, flowing form of exercise. Deeply rooted in Chinese martial arts, it is often said to be a “balm” for both body and mind. But drawing the distinction between what it is said to do and what it actually does is important.
The low-impact nature of tai chi makes it a fitting choice for individuals across age groups, particularly seniors. Tai chi’s movements, characterized by their fluidity and grace, are meant to harmonize the mind and body. To put this to the test, a team led by Fuzhong Li, from Oregon State University, conducted a study on 318 adults.
The adults were in their mid-70s on average. All of them had all reported that their memory was not as good as it used to be. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups:
- the first group practiced a type of tai chi called cognitively enhanced tai ji quan;
- the second group practiced standard tai ji quan;
- the third group simply practiced a stretching routine.
Each group engaged in their respective activities for an hour, twice weekly, over 24 weeks, through virtual, home-based sessions – a testament to the program’s adaptability and accessibility. The idea was to see how (or if) tai chi would increase cognitive ability compared to just regular stretching.
Tai chi and cognitive benefits
To gauge this, all participants took a 10-minute test called the Montreal Cognitive Assessment. A score of 26-30 is considered to be ‘normal’. A score of 18-25 is considered to indicate mild impairment. The average score of participants at the start of the study was 25.
People who practiced regular tai ji quan improved their score by an average of 1.5 points compared to the baseline. According to the researchers, that’s equivalent to reversing 3 years of cognitive decline. People who practiced cognitively enhanced tai ji quan reported an average improvement of almost 3 points. The effects of the intervention persisted after a 48-week period, when researchers followed up. The stretching group showed no improvement in cognitive measures.
The researchers note some important limitations. For instance, there was no non-exercise control group, and all participants had subjective or mild cognitive impairment at the start of the research.
But all in all, researchers say that tai chi offers a good way to keep cognitive decline at bay, in addition to the other physical benefits it provides.
While this study focuses on cognitive enhancement, Tai Chi’s spectrum of benefits extends far beyond just that. This flowing form of exercise seems to be not just a physical routine but a meditative practice.
The health benefits of tai chi are multifaceted. It’s known to improve balance and flexibility, vital in preventing falls — a significant concern in older adults. Its slow, deliberate movements foster a deep sense of relaxation, helping to alleviate stress and anxiety. Moreover, this exercise has been linked to enhanced cardiovascular health, a critical aspect of overall well-being.
This is also far from the only study to suggest the benefits of tai chi. However, the fact that the study was performed in a virtual study format also opens avenues for wider accessibility, allowing more individuals to reap its benefits from the comfort of their homes.
The study was published in Annals of Internal Medicine.