Tai Chi May Be as Beneficial as Conventional Exercise, Study Suggests

People doing tai chi

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Key Takeaways

  • Tai chi may have significant effects on abdominal obesity, comparable to aerobic exercise and strength training.
  • This finding is important given the health risks associated with belly fat, particularly for older people.
  • Tai chi may also help with mobility, which in turn can minimize the risk of falls.

Despite its lack of resistance and aerobic intensity, tai chi appears to have an effect on important health markers, according to a study in Annals of Internal Medicine.

Researchers looked at 543 people aged 50 and older, living in Hong Kong. They split participants into three groups: a control with no exercise intervention, a conventional exercise group who did aerobic exercise and strength training, and a tai chi group. For all three groups, health markers measured at the start of the study, at the end of the 12 intervention period, then 38 weeks later.

The primary measure was waist circumference to determine potential effects on abdominal obesity. Other factors included:

  • Body weight
  • Body mass index
  • High-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C)
  • Triglycerides
  • Fasting plasma glucose levels
  • Blood pressure

Both of the active groups showed a reduction in waist measurement compared to the non-exercise group, as well as some loss of body weight and lower HDL-C. The first two changes were maintained after a year, for both the conventional exercisers and the participants who did tai chi, but the beneficial effect on cholesterol was only maintained in the tai chi group.

Dangers of Belly Fat

Even if you’re slender throughout most of your body, having excess belly fat can still pose health risks. That’s because fat cells aren’t just benign entities packed together, they actually generate adipose hormones and adipokines, says David Ludwig, MD, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

He notes that these chemicals increase the amount of inflammation in the body, which has been linked to health problems like:

  • Heart disease
  • Certain cancers
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes

This type of fat, also known as visceral fat, can lodge deep inside, or around your organs, which can cause chronic health problems, says Robert Lustig, MD, a neuroendocrinologist and professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco.

“This is the type of fat that doctors care about, mostly because it’s visceral fat that’s so dangerous,” he says.

Tai Chi Improves Mobility

Another advantage of tai chi is that it’s a no-impact, gentle movement practice that creates greater awareness in the body and also helps with mobility. Because of that, it’s a strong choice for older adults who may be hesitant to pursue higher-impact training.

Filomena Trindade, MD, MPH

How you move, how you sleep, what you eat, how you handle stress—they can all benefit you in considerable ways and they build on each other for better health.

— Filomena Trindade, MD, MPH

For example, better mobility and balance can reduce the risk of falls, a major consideration for those getting older. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than one in four people age 65 and older fall each year, and 95 percent of hip fractures are caused by falling. These falls can also increase the risk of:

  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Hospitalization and long-term care
  • High medical costs
  • Broken bones
  • Subsequent falls

The CDC adds that risk factors include difficulties with walking and balance as well as lower body weakness—two variables that can potentially be minimized with a regular tai chi practice.

Importance of Diet & Lifestyle

While that type of movement is beneficial, it’s best with effective diet changes, according to Dr. Lustig. He suggests integrating strategies such as limiting or eliminating highly processed foods and eating more vegetables.

"Lowering stress levels through better sleep habits and a practice like tai chi can also be helpful," adds Filomena Trindade, MD, MPH, of the Institute for Functional Medicine. "Not only can that contribute to reducing belly fat, but also leads to better immunity and hormone function."

“It’s all connected in terms of how your body responds,” she says. “How you move, how you sleep, what you eat, how you handle stress—they can all benefit you in considerable ways and they build on each other for better health.”

What This Means For You

Participating in a practice like tai chi can have similar benefits to more conventional exercise like strength training and aerobic activity, including reducing problematic abdominal fat and improving mobility.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Siu PM, Yu AP, Chin EC, et al. Effects of tai chi or conventional exercise on central obesity in middle-aged and older adults: a three-group randomized controlled trial. Ann Intern Med. doi:10.7326/M20-7014

  2. Furman D, Campisi J, Verdin E, et al. Chronic inflammation in the etiology of disease across the life spanNat Med. 2019;25(12):1822-1832. doi:10.1038/s41591-019-0675-0

By Elizabeth Millard, CPT, RYT
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.