Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?

DR. LEVINE’S MAGIC UNDERWEAR resembled bicycle shorts, black and skintight, but with sensors mounted on the thighs and wires running to a fanny pack. The look was part Euro tourist, part cyborg. Twice a second, 24 hours a day, the magic underwear’s accelerometers and inclinometers would assess every movement I made, however small, and whether I was lying, walking, standing or sitting.

James Levine, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., has an intense interest in how much people move — and how much they don’t. He is a leader of an emerging field that some call inactivity studies, which has challenged long-held beliefs about human health and obesity. To help me understand some of the key findings, he suggested that I become a mock research trial participant. First my body fat was measured inside a white, futuristic capsule called a Bod Pod. Next, one of Dr. Levine’s colleagues, Shelly McCrady-Spitzer, placed a hooded mask over my head to measure the content of my exhalations and gauge my body’s calorie-burning rate. After that, I donned the magic underwear, then went down the hall to the laboratory’s research kitchen for a breakfast whose calories were measured precisely.

A weakness of traditional activity and obesity research is that it relies on self-reporting — people’s flawed recollections of how much they ate or exercised. But the participants in a series of studies that Dr. Levine did beginning in 2005 were assessed and wired up the way I was; they consumed all of their food in the lab for two months and were told not to exercise. With nary a snack nor workout left to chance, Dr. Levine was able to plumb the mysteries of a closed metabolic universe in which every calorie, consumed as food or expended for energy, could be accounted for.

His initial question — which he first posed in a 1999 study — was simple: Why do some people who consume the same amount of food as others gain more weight? After assessing how much food each of his subjects needed to maintain their current weight, Dr. Levine then began to ply them with an extra 1,000 calories per day. Sure enough, some of his subjects packed on the pounds, while others gained little to no weight.

“We measured everything, thinking we were going to find some magic metabolic factor that would explain why some people didn’t gain weight,” explains Dr. Michael Jensen, a Mayo Clinic researcher who collaborated with Dr. Levine on the studies. But that wasn’t the case. Then six years later, with the help of the motion-tracking underwear, they discovered the answer. “The people who didn’t gain weight were unconsciously moving around more,” Dr. Jensen says. They hadn’t started exercising more — that was prohibited by the study. Their bodies simply responded naturally by making more little movements than they had before the overfeeding began, like taking the stairs, trotting down the hall to the office water cooler, bustling about with chores at home or simply fidgeting. On average, the subjects who gained weight sat two hours more per day than those who hadn’t.

People don’t need the experts to tell them that sitting around too much could give them a sore back or a spare tire. The conventional wisdom, though, is that if you watch your diet and get aerobic exercise at least a few times a week, you’ll effectively offset your sedentary time. A growing body of inactivity research, however, suggests that this advice makes scarcely more sense than the notion that you could counter a pack-a-day smoking habit by jogging. “Exercise is not a perfect antidote for sitting,” says Marc Hamilton, an inactivity researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

The posture of sitting itself probably isn’t worse than any other type of daytime physical inactivity, like lying on the couch watching “Wheel of Fortune.” But for most of us, when we’re awake and not moving, we’re sitting. This is your body on chairs: Electrical activity in the muscles drops — “the muscles go as silent as those of a dead horse,” Hamilton says — leading to a cascade of harmful metabolic effects. Your calorie-burning rate immediately plunges to about one per minute, a third of what it would be if you got up and walked. Insulin effectiveness drops within a single day, and the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes rises. So does the risk of being obese. The enzymes responsible for breaking down lipids and triglycerides — for “vacuuming up fat out of the bloodstream,” as Hamilton puts it — plunge, which in turn causes the levels of good (HDL) cholesterol to fall.


CreditHoracio Salinas for The New York Times

Hamilton’s most recent work has examined how rapidly inactivity can cause harm. In studies of rats who were forced to be inactive, for example, he discovered that the leg muscles responsible for standing almost immediately lost more than 75 percent of their ability to remove harmful lipo-proteins from the blood. To show that the ill effects of sitting could have a rapid onset in humans too, Hamilton recruited 14 young, fit and thin volunteers and recorded a 40 percent reduction in insulin’s ability to uptake glucose in the subjects — after 24 hours of being sedentary.

Over a lifetime, the unhealthful effects of sitting add up. Alpa Patel, an epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society, tracked the health of 123,000 Americans between 1992 and 2006. The men in the study who spent six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had an overall death rate that was about 20 percent higher than the men who sat for three hours or less. The death rate for women who sat for more than six hours a day was about 40 percent higher. Patel estimates that on average, people who sit too much shave a few years off of their lives.

Another study, published last year in the journal Circulation, looked at nearly 9,000 Australians and found that for each additional hour of television a person sat and watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11 percent. The study author David Dunstan wanted to analyze whether the people who sat watching television had other unhealthful habits that caused them to die sooner. But after crunching the numbers, he reported that “age, sex, education, smoking, hypertension, waist circumference, body-mass index, glucose tolerance status and leisure-time exercise did not significantly modify the associations between television viewing and all-cause . . . mortality.”

Sitting, it would seem, is an independent pathology. Being sedentary for nine hours a day at the office is bad for your health whether you go home and watch television afterward or hit the gym. It is bad whether you are morbidly obese or marathon-runner thin. “Excessive sitting,” Dr. Levine says, “is a lethal activity.”

The good news is that inactivity’s peril can be countered. Working late one night at 3 a.m., Dr. Levine coined a name for the concept of reaping major benefits through thousands of minor movements each day: NEAT, which stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. In the world of NEAT, even the littlest stuff matters. McCrady-Spitzer showed me a chart that tracked my calorie-burning rate with zigzagging lines, like those of a seismograph. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing to one of the spikes, which indicated that the rate had shot up. “That’s when you bent over to tie your shoes,” she said. “It took your body more energy than just sitting still.”

In a motion-tracking study, Dr. Levine found that obese subjects averaged only 1,500 daily movements and nearly 600 minutes sitting. In my trial with the magic underwear, I came out looking somewhat better — 2,234 individual movements and 367 minutes sitting. But I was still nowhere near the farm workers Dr. Levine has studied in Jamaica, who average 5,000 daily movements and only 300 minutes sitting.

Dr. Levine knows that we can’t all be farmers, so instead he is exploring ways for people to redesign their environments so that they encourage more movement. We visited a chairless first-grade classroom where the students spent part of each day crawling along mats labeled with vocabulary words and jumping between platforms while reciting math problems. We stopped by a human-resources staffing agency where many of the employees worked on the move at treadmill desks — a creation of Dr. Levine’s, later sold by a company called Steelcase.

Dr. Levine was in a philosophical mood as we left the temp agency. For all of the hard science against sitting, he admits that his campaign against what he calls “the chair-based lifestyle” is not limited to simply a quest for better physical health. His is a war against inertia itself, which he believes sickens more than just our body. “Go into cubeland in a tightly controlled corporate environment and you immediately sense that there is a malaise about being tied behind a computer screen seated all day,” he said. “The soul of the nation is sapped, and now it’s time for the soul of the nation to rise.”

Non-exercise activity Thermogenesis- N.E.A.T

The N.E.A.T. Way to Exercise

February 27, 2014

Most people think that the only way to burn calories is through scheduled exercise sessions. Although exercise is the most ideal way to expend a lot of calories, there are additional ways to burn them throughout the day that are not programmed sessions. Both weight loss and weight maintenance can be made easier with a clear understanding of non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or N.E.A.T.

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis includes the calories expended outside of exercise, eating and sleeping. There are many N.E.A.T. activities that we already do, but may not realize its caloric output effect. Simple tasks such as raking leaves, physical labor, climbing stairs and even fidgeting help us expend additional calories. In essence, N.E.A.T. increases metabolic rate and results in a substantial energy cost overtime.

Recent movement findings were discussed in the ACE webinar, “Consequences of Sitting and How to Become a Movement Warrior.” Research suggests that individuals who move throughout the day are more likely to reach or maintain weight-loss goals versus those who are sedentary throughout the day and vigorously move through one exercise session. Therefore, a greater caloric output occurs throughout the day rather than during one vigorous exercise session. Researcher James Levine, M.D., who has published several journal articles on the positive effects of N.E.A.T., found that adopting N.E.A.T. behaviors can increase daily caloric expenditure by as much as 350 calories per day, and is particularly beneficial for obese individuals.

Most people spend the majority of their day at work. One way to increase caloric burn is to implement non-exercise movement throughout the workday. Agriculture, construction and housekeeping trades are good examples of high N.E.A.T. jobs because they require a high demand for movement. On the other hand, desk jobs are primarily sedentary and do not expend much energy cost. So how can you increase your N.E.A.T. during the workday? Here are some creative ideas to integrate movement:

Change your mode of transportation. Walk, bike or bus to work instead of driving. This starts and ends the day on a good note, along with a breath of fresh air.

Implement walking meetings. Head outdoors and boost your team’s creativity with a walking meeting. Walking is an effective way to burn calories, stimulate the brain and bond the team.

Throw out your garbage can. Give your eyes and body a break from the computer screen by removing your garbage can from under your desk. This gives you a reason to get up and walk to the workroom or break room to throw out your trash or recycling materials.

Create wellness challenges. Talk to your HR or Wellness department about creating walking challenges. If HR cannot help, form walking teams within your department. One challenge may include walking 10,000 steps per day for 10 days. Individuals who meet or exceed the goal’s challenge can win a prize or an incentive reward. Pedometers and Fitbit devices are beneficial tools to track these steps.

Take the stairs. This old adage still rings true. Skip the elevator and take the stairs to keep the body moving throughout the day.

Stand instead of sit. Adjustable and treadmill desks are becoming increasingly popular in the workplace. However, if these desks are not available, raise your work to a podium or counter so you can stand throughout the day. This is advantageous for those who need to read or work from a laptop or mobile device. Resting heart rate is higher while standing than sitting, thus increasing caloric output.

Accumulated physical activity can significantly increase the number of calories burned throughout the day or week. Therefore, if you’re tied behind the desk remember there are plenty of ways to incorporate movement when you cannot formally exercise. Other N.E.A.T. examples include:

  • Playing with your kids
  • Completing yard work
  • Grocery shopping
  • Walking the dog
  • Cleaning the house

If your day lacks N.E.A.T., think of one or two ideas that you can start with to integrate movement into your day or week. For those who track calories, use to find an estimated calorie burn based on the activity, length of time and current weight. This site, along with other websites, does not consider gender, which does affect the caloric output. However, it is an effective guide for calculating caloric burn, especially for activities such as chores or yard work. is free and easy to use for those who do not have a current calorie tracker device or website.

So the next time you’re looking to rev up your calorie burn, choose the N.E.A.T. way to stay active. N.E.A.T. is a beneficial addition to your exercise routine that does not take time away from home or family—perfect for those who find time is their worst enemy.


Taichi style tree – ( why I choose 24 forms of yang style)

taichi-tree            yang-style

1. How did Tai Chi begin?

There are two theories

Theory #1
Around the Yuan and Ming Dynasty – Chang Sanfeng – about 600-700 years ago lived in Shaolin Temple and went to WuDang Mountain and created Tai Chi. He saw a crane fighting with a snake. The crane was always hard. The snake would yield and follow the crane and did not resist and so he didn’t lose his life to the crane. Hard was controlled by soft.
Theory #2
Created by Chen Family about 300 years ago by Chen Wangting.

2. What are the 13 Postures (original name of Tai Chi Chuan)?

The 13 Postures are comprised of 8 energies and 5 steps:

8 energies are: ward off, roll back, press, push, pull, elbow strike, shoulder strike, and split

5 steps are: forward, back, look left, gaze right, and center

3. How many styles of Tai Chi are there and what are their differences?

There are 5 different styles of Tai Chi that are connected with each other. Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu and Sun styles. All 5 styles are connected together; their outside movements are a little different but inside the energies are the same.

Chen Style – is fast and slow combined together with some jumping and stomping movements. Old form and cannon fist was created from the 17th generation.

Yang StyleYang Luchan learned the old form/frame from the Chen family. Yang movements are slow, even, gentle, big and large. Yang Luchan learned from the 14th generation Chen family member.

Wu/Hao Style – The 1st Wu style came from Yang and Chen styles and is slow, smooth, and small and the posture is high. Wu Yuxiang learned from Yang Banhou, 2nd generation Yang family member, and then learned from Chen Qingping, 14th generation. Wu/Hao is a smaller frame.

Wu Style – 2nd Wu style comes from Quanyu who learned from Yang Banhou. They lean their body to the side but when they lean they think about being straight. Wu learned from Yang Banhou. Later in age Banhou’s frame became smaller.

Sun Style – learned from Hao Weijian. Their movements combine 3 styles of Tai Chi together, Wu, Hsing-I and Bagua.

4. Who created each of the 5 styles?

Chen was created by Chen Wangting
Yang was created by Yang Luchan
Wu/Hao was created by Wu Yuxiang
Wu was created by Wu Jian Quan or Wu Quanyu
Sun was created by Sun Lutang

5. Who did the creators learn from?

Yang Luchan learned from Chen Changxin
Wu Yuxiang learned from Yang Luchan, Yang Banhou and Chen Qingping
Wu Jianquan learned from his father, Quanyu
Sun Lutang learned from Hao Weijian

6.  The most practised form now.

The Beijing 24 Form was the result of an effort by the Chinese Sports Committee, which, in 1956, brought together four Taiji teachers – Chu Guiting, Cai Longyun, Fu Zhongwen, and Zhang Yu – to create a simplified form of Taiji as exercise for the masses. The creators truncated the traditional family style Taiji forms to 24 postures; taking about six minutes to perform and to give the beginner an introduction to the essential elements of Taijiquan, yet retain the traditional flavor of traditional longer hand forms (in general, 88-108 postures). Henceforth, this form was avidly promoted by the People’s Republic of China for general exercise, and was also taught to internees in Communist “re-education” camps. Due to this official promotion, the 24-form is most likely the Taiji form with the most practitioners in China and the world over.



simplified-yang style-24 hand forms

Beijing Form

Chinese Pinyin English
1 起势 qǐ shì Beginning form
2 野马分鬃 yě mǎ fēn zōng Wild horse, part the mane
3 白鹤亮翅 bái hè liàng chì White crane, brilliant wings
4 搂膝拗步 lǒu xī ǎo bù Embrace knee, twist step
5 手挥琵琶 shǒu huī pí pá Hands play Pipa
6 倒撵猴 dǎo niǎn hóu Retreat, expel the monkey
7 左揽雀尾 zuǒ lǎn què wěi Left grasp the sparrow’s tail
8 右揽雀尾 yòu lǎn què wěi Right grasp the sparrow’s tail
9 单鞭 dān biān Single whip
10 云手 yún shǒu Cloud hands
11 单鞭 dān biān Single whip
12 高探马 gāo tàn mǎ High pat the horse
13 右蹬脚 yòu dèng jiǎo Right kick foot
14 双峰贯耳 shuāng fēng guàn ěr Both hands strike ears
15 左蹬脚 zuǒ dèng jiǎo Left kick foot
16 左下势独立 zuǒ xià shì dú lì Left going down power, stand on one leg
17 右下势独立 yòu xià shì dú lì Right going down power, stand on one leg
18 玉女穿梭 yù nǚ chuān suō Jade woman works the shuttles
19 海底针 hǎi dǐ zhēn Sea bottom needle
20 闪通背 shǎn tōng bèi Fan through the back
21 转身搬拦捶 zhuǎn shēn bān lán chuí Twist the body, deflect block, strike
22 如封似闭 rú fēng sì bì Like closing (a door)
23 十字手 shí zì shǒu Ten letter hands (cross hands)
24 合太极 hé tài jí Gathering taichi

Yang style Taichi names

Yang Style Hand Form

Chinese Pinyin English
1 預備 yù bèi Preparation
2 起式 qǐ shì Beginning style
3 攔雀尾 lán què wěi Block sparrow tail
4 單鞭 dān biān Single whip
5 提手上勢 tí shǒu shàng shì Raise hands, upwards power
6 白鶴涼翅 bái hè liáng chì White crane, cold wings
7 左摟膝拗步 zuǒ lǒu xī ǎo bù Left embrace knee, twist step
8 手揮琵琶 shǒu huī pí pá Hands play Pipa
9 左摟膝拗步 zuǒ lǒu xī ǎo bù Left embrace knee, twist step
10 右摟膝拗步 yòu lǒu xī ǎo bù Right embrace knee, twist step
11 左摟膝拗步 zuǒ lǒu xī ǎo bù Left embrace knee, twist step
12 手揮琵琶 shǒu huī pí pá Hands play Pipa
13 左摟膝拗步 zuǒ lǒu xī ǎo bù Left embrace knee, twist step
14 進步搬攔捶 jìn bù bān lán chuí Entering step, deflect block, strike
15 如封似閉 rú fēng sì bì Like closing (a door)
16 十字手 shí zì shǒu Ten letter hands (cross hands)
17 抱虎歸山 bào hǔ guī shān Embrace tiger, return to mountain
18 肘底捶 zhǒu dǐ chuí Under the elbow fist
19 左倒攆猴 zuǒ dǎo niǎn hóu Left retreat, expel the monkey
20 右倒攆猴 yòu dǎo niǎn hóu Right retreat, expel the monkey
21 左倒攆猴 zuǒ dǎo niǎn hóu Left retreat, expel the monkey
22 斜飛式 xié fēi shì Oblique flying style
23 提手上勢 tí shǒu shàng shì Raise hands, upwards power
24 白鶴涼翅 bái hè liáng chì White crane, cold wings
25 左摟膝拗步 zuǒ lǒu xī ǎo bù Left embrace knee, twist step
26 海底針 hǎi dǐ zhēn Sea bottom needle
27 扇通背 shàn tōng bèi Fan through the back
28 轉身撇身捶 zhuǎn shēn piē shēn chuí Twist the body, swing fist
29 進步搬攔捶 jìn bù bān lán chuí Entering step, deflect block, strike
30 上步攔雀尾 shàng bù lán què wěi Step up, block sparrow tail
31 單鞭 dān biān Single whip
32 雲手 yún shǒu Cloud hands
33 雲手 yún shǒu Cloud hands
34 雲手 yún shǒu Cloud hands
35 單鞭 dān biān Single whip
36 高探馬 gāo tàn mǎ High pat the horse
37 右分腳 yòu fēn jiǎo Right separate legs
38 左分腳 zuǒ fēn jiǎo Left separate legs
39 轉身左蹬腳 zhuǎn shēn zuǒ dèng jiǎo Twist the body, left kick foot
40 左摟膝拗步 zuǒ lǒu xī ǎo bù Left embrace knee, twist step
41 右摟膝拗步 yòu lǒu xī ǎo bù Right embrace knee, twist step
42 進步栽捶 jìn bù zāi chuí Entering step, plant punch
43 轉身撇身捶 zhuǎn shēn piē shēn chuí Twist the body, swing fist
44 進步搬攔捶 jìn bù bān lán chuí Entering step, deflect block, strike
45 右蹬腳 yòu dèng jiǎo Right kick foot
46 左打虎式 zuǒ dǎ hǔ shì Left striking the tiger style
47 右打虎式 yòu dǎ hǔ shì Right striking the tiger style
48 回身右蹬腳 huí shēn yòu dèng jiǎo Turn body, right kick foot
49 雙峰灌耳 shuāng fēng guàn ěr Both hands flood ears
50 左蹬腳 zuǒ dèng jiǎo Left kick foot
51 轉身右蹬腳 zhuǎn shēn yòu dèng jiǎo Twist the body, right kick foot
52 進步搬攔捶 jìn bù bān lán chuí Entering step, deflect block, strike
53 如封似閉 rú fēng sì bì Like closing (a door)
54 十字手 shí zì shǒu Ten letter hands (cross hands)
55 抱虎歸山 bào hǔ guī shān Embrace tiger, return to mountain
56 斜單鞭 xié dān biān Oblique single whip
57 右野馬分鬃 yòu yě mǎ fēn zōng Right wild horse, part the mane
58 左野馬分鬃 zuǒ yě mǎ fēn zōng Left wild horse, part the mane
59 右野馬分鬃 yòu yě mǎ fēn zōng Right wild horse, part the mane
60 攔雀尾 lán què wěi Block sparrow tail
61 單鞭 dān biān Single whip
62 玉女穿梭 yù nǚ chuān suō Jade woman works the shuttles
63 攔雀尾 lán què wěi Block sparrow tail
64 單鞭 dān biān Single whip
65 雲手 yún shǒu Cloud hands
66 雲手 yún shǒu Cloud hands
67 雲手 yún shǒu Cloud hands
68 單鞭 dān biān Single whip
69 下勢 xià shì Going down power
70 左金鷄獨立 zuǒ jīn jī dú lì Left golden pheasant stands on one leg
71 右金鷄獨立 yòu jīn jī dú lì Right golden pheasant stands on one leg
72 左倒攆猴 zuǒ dǎo niǎn hóu Left retreat, expel the monkey
73 右倒攆猴 yòu dǎo niǎn hóu Right retreat, expel the monkey
74 左倒攆猴 zuǒ dǎo niǎn hóu Left retreat, expel the monkey
75 斜飛勢 xié fēi shì Oblique flying power
76 提手上勢 tí shǒu shàng shì Raise hands, upwards power
77 白鶴涼翅 bái hè liáng chì White crane, cold wings
78 左摟膝拗步 zuǒ lǒu xī ǎo bù Left embrace knee, twist step
79 海底針 hǎi dǐ zhēn Sea bottom needle
80 扇通背 shàn tōng bèi Fan through the back
81 轉身白蛇吐信 zhuǎn shēn bái shé tǔ xìn Twist the body, white snake tongue
82 進步搬攔捶 jìn bù bān lán chuí Entering step, deflect block, strike
83 上步攔雀尾 shàng bù lán què wěi Step up, block sparrow tail
84 單鞭 dān biān Single whip
85 雲手 yún shǒu Cloud hands
86 雲手 yún shǒu Cloud hands
87 雲手 yún shǒu Cloud hands
88 單鞭 dān biān Single whip
89 高探馬穿掌 gāo tàn mǎ chuān zhǎng High pat the horse with thrust palm
90 十字腿 shí zì tuǐ Ten letter legs (cross legs)
91 進步指襠捶 jìn bù zhǐ dāng chuí Entering step, point at the crotch fist
92 上步攔雀尾 shàng bù lán què wěi Step up, block sparrow tail
93 單鞭 dān biān Single whip
94 下勢 xià shì Going down power
95 上步七星 shàng bù qī xīng Step up, seven stars
96 退步跨虎 tuì bù kuà hǔ Step back, ride the tiger
97 轉身擺蓮 zhuǎn shēn bǎi lián Twist the body, sweep lotus
98 彎弓射虎 wān gōng shè hǔ Draw the bow, shoot the tiger
99 進步搬攔捶 jìn bù bān lán chuí Entering step, deflect block, strike
100 如封似閉 rú fēng sì bì Like closing (a door)
101 十字手 shí zì shǒu Ten letter hands (cross hands)
102 收式 shōu shì Gathering style
103 還原 huán yuán Return to origin

Revised FYP summary

1.What do you need to design? (Product)

A fitness furniture/facility

2. What is its nature? ( Description)

The facility aims to learn from traditional Chinese regimen such as Taiji in order to design a product or system that could improve people’s fitness level, facilitate indoor exercise, especially in small space

3. Who is it for? (Audience)

For everyone who need to reduce mental and physical stress and discomforts.

4. Why is it needed? (Problem)

More and more people live in cities. Urban lifestyle  does not provide enough time and space for people, and many people lack the knowledge and awareness in taking care of their own body.

5. What are its benefits? ( Solution) 

The project intends to take inspiration from Traditional Chinese Medicine culture and system.

6.Why is it interesting? ( Originality/Challenge)

My project would be to extend the benefit of Tai Chi to commoners such as busy working adult and students who do not have time to join classes led by Tai Chi masters or coaches. I am not trying to teach them how to practice Tai Chi, intead I would extract the essentiality of Tai Chi – both mental and physical balance and flexibility

7. What will you bring to it? ( Vision)

I will bring a sense of playful comfortness and relaxation, improvements in both mental and physical health.

8. How will you proceed? ( Methods)

I will study the Tai Chi movements and methodology behind it. By deconstructing the movements and gestures, I would be able to develop a simple but effective system for  users.

The health benefits of tai chi


This gentle form of exercise can help maintain strength, flexibilyt, and balance, and could be the perfect activity for the rest of your life.

Tai chi is often described as “meditation in motion,” but it might well be called “medicationin motion.” There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice, which originated in China as a martial art, has value in treating or preventing many health problems. And you can get started even if you aren’t in top shape or the best of health.

In this low-impact, slow-motion exercise, you go without pausing through a series of motions named for animal actions — for example, “white crane spreads its wings” — or martial arts moves, such as “box both ears.” As you move, you breathe deeply and naturally, focusing your attention — as in some kinds of meditation — on your bodily sensations. Tai chi differs from other types of exercise in several respects. The movements are usually circular and never forced, the muscles are relaxed rather than tensed, the joints are not fully extended or bent, and connective tissues are not stretched. Tai chi can be easily adapted for anyone, from the most fit to people confined to wheelchairs or recovering from surgery.

Tai chi movement

Tai chi movements help maintain strength, flexibility and balance

A tai chi class practices a short form at the Tree of Life Tai Chi Center in Watertown, Mass.

“A growing body of carefully conducted research is building a compelling case for tai chi as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with age,” says Peter M. Wayne, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Tai Chi and Mind-Body Research Program at Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Center. An adjunct therapy is one that’s used together with primary medical treatments, either to address a disease itself or its primary symptoms, or, more generally, to improve a patient’s functioning and quality of life.

Belief systems

You don’t need to subscribe to or learn much about tai chi’s roots in Chinese philosophy to enjoy its health benefits, but these concepts can help make sense of its approach:

  • Qi — an energy force thought to flow through the body; tai chi is said to unblock and encourage the proper flow of qi.
  • Yin and yang — opposing elements thought to make up the universe that need to be kept in harmony. Tai chi is said to promote this balance.

Tai chi in motion

A tai chi class might include these parts:

Warm-up. Easy motions, such as shoulder circles, turning the head from side to side, or rocking back and forth, help you to loosen your muscles and joints and focus on your breath and body.

Instruction and practice of tai chi forms. Short forms — forms are sets of movements — may include a dozen or fewer movements; long forms may include hundreds. Different styles require smaller or larger movements. A short form with smaller, slower movements is usually recommended at the beginning, especially if you’re older or not in good condition.

Qigong (or chi kung). Translated as “breath work” or “energy work,” this consists of a few minutes of gentle breathing sometimes combined with movement. The idea is to help relax the mind and mobilize the body’s energy. Qigong may be practiced standing, sitting, or lying down.

Getting started

The benefits of tai chi are generally greatest if you begin before you develop a chronic illness or functional limitations. Tai chi is very safe, and no fancy equipment is needed, so it’s easy to get started. Here’s some advice for doing so:

Don’t be intimidated by the language. Names like Yang, Wu, and Cheng are given to various branches of tai chi, in honor of people who devised the sets of movements called forms. Certain programs emphasize the martial arts aspect of tai chi rather than its potential for healing and stress reduction. In some forms, you learn long sequences of movements, while others involve shorter series and more focus on breathing and meditation. The name is less important than finding an approach that matches your interests and needs.

Check with your doctor . If you have a limiting musculoskeletal problem or medical condition — or if you take medications that can make you dizzy or lightheaded — check with your doctor before starting tai chi. Given its excellent safety record, chances are that you’ll be encouraged to try it.

Consider observing and taking a class. Taking a class may be the best way to learn tai chi. Seeing a teacher in action, getting feedback, and experiencing the camaraderie of a group are all pluses. Most teachers will let you observe the class first to see if you feel comfortable with the approach and atmosphere. Instruction can be individualized. Ask about classes at your local Y, senior center, or community education center. The Arthritis Foundation (; 800-283-7800, toll-free) can tell you whether its tai chi program, a 12-movement, easy-to-learn sequence, is offered in your area.

If you’d rather learn at home, you can buy or rent videos geared to your interests and fitness needs (see “Selected resources”). Although there are some excellent tai chi books, it can be difficult to appreciate the flow of movements from still photos or illustrations.

Talk to the instructor. There’s no standard training or licensing for tai chi instructors, so you’ll need to rely on recommendations from friends or clinicians and, of course, your own judgment. Look for an experienced teacher who will accommodate individual health concerns or levels of coordination and fitness.

Dress comfortably. Choose loose-fitting clothes that don’t restrict your range of motion. You can practice barefoot or in lightweight, comfortable, and flexible shoes. Tai chi shoes are available, but ones you find in your closet will probably work fine. You’ll need shoes that won’t slip and can provide enough support to help you balance, but have soles thin enough to allow you to feel the ground. Running shoes, designed to propel you forward, are usually unsuitable.

Gauge your progress. Most beginning programs and tai chi interventions tested in medical research last at least 12 weeks, with instruction once or twice a week and practice at home. By the end of that time, you should know whether you enjoy tai chi, and you may already notice positive physical and psychological changes.

No pain, big gains

Although tai chi is slow and gentle and doesn’t leave you breathless, it addresses the key components of fitness — muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and, to a lesser degree, aerobic conditioning. Here’s some of the evidence:

Muscle strength. Tai chi can improve both lower-body strength and upper-body strength. When practiced regularly, tai chi can be comparable to resistance training and brisk walking.

“Although you aren’t working with weights or resistance bands, the unsupported arm exercise involved in tai chi strengthens your upper body,” says internist Dr. Gloria Yeh, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “Tai chi strengthens both the lower and upper extremities and also the core muscles of the back and abdomen.”

Flexibility. Tai chi can boost upper- and lower-body flexibility as well as strength.

Balance. Tai chi improves balance and, according to some studies, reduces falls. Proprioception — the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space — declines with age. Tai chi helps train this sense, which is a function of sensory neurons in the inner ear and stretch receptors in the muscles and ligaments. Tai chi also improves muscle strength and flexibility, which makes it easier to recover from a stumble. Fear of falling can make you more likely to fall; some studies have found that tai chi training helps reduce that fear.

Aerobic conditioning. Depending on the speed and size of the movements, tai chi can provide some aerobic benefits. If your clinician advises a more intense cardio workout with a higher heart rate than tai chi can offer, you may need something more aerobic as well.

Selected resources

Tai Chi

Tai Chi

Tree of Life Tai Chi

Updated: December 4, 2015

Originally published: May 2009