by Sam Langley: What is the most beneficial form of exercise?
In terms of health, nothing comes close to Tai chi. Many activities whilst giving some benefits are also detrimental to well being. Running, swimming, cycling and going to the gym will probably help you lose weight but may also enlarge the heart, damage the joints and create tension in the body.
So why is Tai chi different? For a start, Moving slowly whilst maintaining a level of relaxation is extremely good for you, the whole body gets a gentle workout without stressing the joints. Sinking the weight into the legs makes them very strong which helps blood circulation enormously, in China they say strong legs = good health.
Moving slowly and gently strengthens the fascia, the elastic web of connective tissue that holds us together. Healthy Fascia is very important for our physical health as it supports the body’s structure. Weak fascia will eventually result in all sorts of ailments. How many people do you know with backache, neck problems or bad knees? The chances are they don’t exercise their fascia properly. Someone that regularly lifts weights will often have overdeveloped muscles but weak fascia. Relaxation is the key to engaging the fascia, something that is impossible to do whilst putting the body under strain.
The thing about tai chi is that even if it’s done incorrectly it’s still good for you. Once you have a little skill however you can really feel the benefits as your body becomes strong and powerful yet balanced, light and supremely relaxed.
What about yoga that’s supposed to be good for you isn’t it? There is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that yoga can be very dangerous, frequently resulting in back problems torn ligaments and even strokes. Of course, there maybe yoga teachers out there who emphasise moderation but most of what I’ve seen looks a bit dodgy. Yoga practitioners seem to do really full on stretches too quickly without much warm up. In Tai Chi, we start out very gently and gradually only doing 70 percent of what we conceivably can. The more difficult low stances are only attempted after many years of practice. We warm up the fascia and then gently stretch it, which is precisely the advice that experts in this field give.
Obviously, I’m biased. If you want evidence, however, it’s not hard to find. There are tons of studies on the benefits of Tai Chi showing it improves circulation, lowers blood pressure, improves sleep, lowers risk of falling, increases flexibility, improves bone density and there’s even some evidence that it increases the number of stem cells in your body.
Any exercise is better than nothing but gentle and frequent exercise is preferable. Many people spend far too much time sitting. If you combine a large amount of sitting with sudden bursts of intense activity at the gym I personally think you’re asking for trouble. Our stone age ancestors probably moved around and stood up more than we do. They would have had cause to run about and exercise vigorously but were fit enough and sufficiently warmed up to do so without tearing ligaments or having heart attacks.
To be healthy we need to move more and spend more time standing up. Tai Chi will teach you how to move and stand in the right way. After a short time, your posture will improve and you will move more naturally.
In summary…..people are more out of shape than they’ve ever been, they are also stressed out and have shrinking attention spans. The answer is Tai Chi. There isn’t a good reason to not do it!