Tai Chi for Mental Health

An examination of 40 studies gives a modestly positive review on the use of tai chi, a low-impact martial art, for improving mental health. Tai chi has been practiced for hundreds of years but is not typically recognized as an effective treatment method for mental health conditions in the Western world.

This martial art technique has been associated with reduced stress, anxiety and depression, and enhanced mood, in both healthy people and those with chronic conditions.

The systematic review of the subject, published in the open-access journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, found that although tai chi does appear to have positive psychological effects, more high-quality, randomized trials are needed. The overwhelming evidence found by researchers, however, demonstrated a robust positive result for the use of tai chi to help improve a person’s mental health.

Dr. Chenchen Wang, associate professor at Tufts Medical Center, Tufts University School of Medicine in Massachusetts, worked with a team of researchers to pool the results of the studies, including 17 randomized controlled trials, into the mental health effects of tai chi.

She said, “Tai chi, the Chinese low-impact mind-body exercise, has been practiced for centuries for health and fitness in the East and is currently gaining popularity in the West. It is believed to improve mood and enhance overall psychological well-being, but convincing evidence has so far been lacking.”

Wang and her colleagues found that practicing tai chi was associated with reduced stress, anxiety, depression and mood disturbance, and increased self-esteem. These findings were fairly robust, meaning that the researchers believe the effects to be not just statistically meaningful, but also significant in improving the subjective experiences of the people in the studies.

The quality of the studies identified was generally modest, however. Rigorous, prospective, well-controlled randomized trials with appropriate comparison groups and validated outcome measures are generally lacking. The researchers did not find any meaningful negative side effects by practicing tai chi, or giving it a try, unlike many active treatments such as medications or psychotherapy.

Wang said, “More detailed knowledge about the physiological and psychological effects of tai chi exercise may lead to new approaches to promote health, treat chronic medical conditions, better inform clinical decisions and further explicate the mechanisms of successful mind-body medicine.”

More research is needed to confirm the positive impact of tai chi. But in this largest study ever of the impact of this martial art, the data are promising.

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