How Tai Chi Can Help Build Muscle Strength and Flexibility

Despite its slow movements, tai chi can help you strengthen your muscles, stabilize your posture and improve your range of motion.

It’s often called meditation in motion: a choreography of slow, fluid positions with wonderfully poetic names like White Crane Spreads Wings and Wave Hands Like Clouds. But don’t be fooled by the gentle exterior—when it comes to improving muscle strength and endurance, flexibility and range of motion, and even cardiovascular and neurological health, tai chi packs a serious punch.

(Related: 4 Stretches to Improve Range of Motion as You Age)

Unlike running and swimming, for example—activities that are all forward motion—tai chi involves moving the body sideways and backwards as well. “This three-dimensional movement is good for range of motion, and it means tai chi treats muscles responsible for lateral movement, like our hips,” says Jing Xian Li, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Human Kinetics. “Those muscles are very important for our balance, which is why tai chi can improve postural stability.”

And that slow, smooth sequence of movements—“like water,” Li says—demands a whole bunch of motion control and eye movement, which serve to strengthen our upper and lower bodies. “Tai chi does not have the same impact on our joints as running does,” Li says. “But when it comes to enhanced muscle strength and endurance, tai chi is remarkable; it’s comparable to running.” Not only that, but tai chi can also help reduce the damage on joints and cartilage that years of high-impact activity may have caused.

There’s a reason Li also describes tai chi as a mind-body exercise: You aren’t on autopilot. You’re thinking about the names of the movements; you’re coordinating those movements with your breath. “It deepens the connection between your body and mind,” Li says. That’s why studies have shown tai chi not only makes people physically stronger but also increases their confidence and reduces levels of anxiety and stress. Not too shabby for a couple of cloud hands.

Next: Dancing Improved My Health After Two Hip Replacements

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada