When the pain of arthritis flares up, you might be tempted to take it easy on your joints by limiting movement. While it makes sense to rest in the acute phase of an injury, doctors agree that inactivity can actually make arthritis pain worse. So how can you get movement into your day but take good care of your joints at the same time? Tai chi for arthritis is one of the most gentle, approachable exercise options that can be done in the comfort of your home. As always, it’s wise to talk to doctor before beginning a new exercise routine, but here we explore the benefits of tai chi for arthritis and offer some beginner lessons for you to try.
What is tai chi?
Tai chi is a meditative, movement-based exercise that has its roots firmly in Chinese medicine and martial arts. Between two and three million people in the U.S. maintain a regular tai chi practice.
There are five major styles—Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu (a different word in Chinese) and Sun—but each follow similar philosophical foundations:
- The mind is connected to and integrated with the body
- Movement and breath are synchronized and controlled
- These movements generate internal energy, mindfulness, loosening, and serenity
Ultimately, tai chi’s goal is to develop and nourish life energy (qi) by harmonizing mind and body, inner and outer being. To do this, each style of tai chi includes similar elements in their routines (referred to as forms):
- Taolu (solo hand and weapons forms)
- Neigongand qigong (breathing, movement and awareness exercises and meditation)
- Tuishou (partner drills such as “pushing hands”)
- Sanshou (techniques of self-defense)
The forms are repeated over and over, slowly and methodically. The goal is to fully integrate movement, breath, and awareness.
How can tai chi for arthritis help me?
Although perhaps not as well-known as yoga for arthritis, the benefits of tai chi for arthritis are similar to yoga’s benefits.
Moving your body in the graceful, low-impact forms of tai chi is proven to make you feel better, not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. Here’s how.
Helps prevent falls
Tai chi for arthritis and fall prevention is a research-backed major benefit of this gentle, meditative exercise.
Older adults are more likely to be affected by arthritis. For this population, falls can not only be painful—they can be deadly. An estimated 25% of people over the age of 65 falls every year. Every 19 minutes, one of those older adults dies from their fall. Falls are the leading cause of both non-fatal and fatal injury in older adults. Finally, the financial burden for patients and their caregivers is tremendous.
The fear and anxiety surrounding falling can be so great that older adults limit their activity. This increases their arthritis pain. The slow movements of tai chi can be tailored to every age and fitness level. This helps to gradually build confidence and help prevent falls. In the research, tai chi has proven more effective than traditional exercise in fall prevention.
Builds strength in large muscles
Tai chi builds strength in both upper- and lower-body muscles that is similar to resistance workouts.
This strength-building comes from the slow-motion movements. These movements engage muscles for a longer period of time through their full range of motion. When compared to short, jerky movements, tai chi exercises the entire muscle. This results in lean, strong bodies.
Twenty years of research have shown that because of tai chi’s strengthening and confidence-building, practitioners have increased mobility and self-efficacy in their daily lives.
Adults of all ages can use the benefits of tai chi in all aspects of their daily lives.
Muscle strengthening occurs when the muscles are engaged in repetitive motion. In contrast, connective tissues, including ligaments and tendons, are strengthened and safely lengthened when movements are slow and held for long periods of time.
Tai chi’s forms accomplish both tasks, offering increased flexibility and range of motion in both connective tissues and muscles.
Regular movement in the joints helps to increase joint production of synovial fluid. This natural joint lubrication is crucial for easy, pain-free movement in the largest weight-bearing joints of the body.
Knee arthritis is one of the most common kinds of arthritis, and tai chi has been shown to be just as effective as physical therapy in relieving knee pain associated with arthritis.
Improves psychological outcomes
The main difference in the study above that compared physical therapy to tai chi is a big one. Patients who practiced tai chi in the study reported improvements in their symptoms of depression and a better quality of life. Physical therapy patients did not report improvements.
Whether it is the slow pace of movement or the combination of deep and relaxing breathwork, one of the big benefits of tai chi for arthritis is the boost in mood that practitioners experience. These benefits hold true even when compared to both cognitive behavioral therapy and pharmaceutical intervention. Tai chi is even effective in treating major depressive disorder and comes with no side effects.
How to get started with tai chi for beginners
When first considering tai chi for beginners, check in with your doctor. Although this exercise is remarkably safe, it’s important to coordinate all treatments with your healthcare provider.
Next, if you are interested in taking in-person classes, consider observing a class first. This can give you an idea of what to expect. In general, each class follows a loose structure that includes the following:
- Warm-ups: Movements such as rocking back and forth, rolling the shoulders, and circling the head and neck
- Instruction and practice: Forms might be introduced and explained, followed by practice
- Qigong (pronounced “chee-gong”): Breathwork, sometimes combined with movement, completed standing, sitting, or lying down
In your observations, you might run into specialized terms. These include:
- Qi: Pronounced “chee,” this is the energy or life force that runs through every person
- Yin and yang: The opposing forces at work in the universe—neither good, nor bad and both necessary to maintain balance
In addition, the forms might have names that seem strange or unfamiliar, like “white crane spreads its wings.” In some cases, the name holds the key to the movement, but if it doesn’t make sense, don’t worry. The movement and the breath are the most important things.
You don’t need to hold any special beliefs. Tai chi is a philosophical practice, not a religious one. People of all backgrounds practice.
Preparing for class
You also don’t need any special clothing, shoes, or equipment. Dress for each class in loose-fitting clothes that move with you. Make sure your shoes have non-slip soles that are supportive. They should be thin enough that you can get a sense of the ground beneath you.
If you choose to take a class, talk to the instructor beforehand. You can let them know any restrictions you might have. See if they have any suggestions to make learning the practice less intimidating.
If you would rather learn from a video, we have linked our favorites below (including seated tai chi for arthritis). Same preparations apply: talk to your doctor, wear comfortable clothes and shoes, and don’t be intimidated by the language.
Great tai chi for arthritis exercises and lessons
The thing to remember when starting tai chi for arthritis and fall prevention is to go slowly and keep breathing. You might find yourself holding your breath, trying to get the form perfect. Resist that urge. Let the breath flow smoothly and go as slowly as you need to.
There are a wide variety of printed resources on tai chi, but most beginners find it best to learn from a video. Matching breath to movement—and the reasons why you move the way you do—are often best explained as you practice and watch a teacher. If you’d like to learn more and explore printed resources, Tai Chi for Health Institute hosts a wide variety of instructional materials on its site. These can be helpful as you begin to reap the benefits of tai chi for arthritis.
In addition, here are six video lessons to get you started.
Background and history lesson
Consider this video your introduction to tai chi, with an explanation of which form is best for arthritis (and which to avoid). This video offers instruction in basic tai chi forms, delivered in a supportive and comforting voice. It also offers variations for seated tai chi for arthritis.
Five-minute daily tai chi class
This video is basic and offers a foundation for building a daily tai chi practice. The movements are simple and clear, and instructor Leia Cohen offers imagery to help you move with your breath.
Foundational movements, explained
Peter Chen goes through the most foundational movements of tai chi. If you are a person who likes to gather specific and precise instruction and are worried about doing it “wrong,” this is a good place to start.
Seated tai chi
Seated tai chi is excellent for people who are recovery from surgery, returning to exercise after a long absence, or who just feel they need a little more support.
A full 30-minute practice
This practice features an instructor and a student who modifies each form or posture as they are explained. The focus in this class is on balance and flow, and students can expect exercises that are strengthening and rehabilitative.
Seated qigong with guided breathing
A beautiful, energetic seated breathing practice. Shifu Yan Xin leads a supportive and meditative sequence that opens the lungs, the heart, and the shoulders.
Learn more about tai chi for arthritis, and other treatments
The best approach to treating arthritis is a holistic one. From yoga and acupuncture to exercise and lifestyle changes, relieving pain and increasing mobility requires a comprehensive treatment plan that brings together many healing traditions. These might include interventional pain management techniques, too.
If you’d like to explore tai chi for arthritis as part of your treatment plan, get in touch with Arizona Pain today. We believe in individualized treatment plans that can help you get your life back.