Over the years, research has shown that tai chi and other traditional Chinese exercises—which all involve specific postures and gentle movement, combined with mental focus, breathing, and relaxation—can be good for wellbeing in a variety of ways.

Tai chi benefits (and those of similar practices) include easing back and knee pain, improving balance and stability in older adults or people with Parkinson's disease, and improving the quality of life for cancer patients. Now you can add heart health to the list of tai chi benefits.

New Findings on Tai Chi Benefits

A recently published study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that exercises such as tai chi, qigong, and baduanjin helped reduce high blood pressure and high cholesterol in people with cardiovascular disease.

The researchers, led by Chen Pei-Jie, Ph.D., president of Shanghai University of Sport in China, reviewed 35 studies that included 2,249 people with cardiovascular disease. The studies randomly assigned participants to one of three kinds of groups: those that performed traditional Chinese exercises for several weeks; those that regularly performed another form of exercise, such as endurance training or aerobics; and those that did not engage in formal exercise programs or increase their activity.

The researchers then compared the blood pressure and cholesterol levels of all participants. When it came to blood pressure, those in the Chinese exercise groups saw their systolic blood pressure (the top number) drop by more than 9.12 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) by more than 5 mmHg, on average.

This may not sound significant, but these reductions were greater than those found in studies of rigorous aerobic exercise. According to UpToDate, which reviews scientific research, regularly engaging in aerobic exercise resulted in average blood pressure drops of only 4 to 6 mmHg systolic and 3 mmHg diastolic.

The team also found that people who practiced traditional Chinese exercises had small, but meaningful reductions in their levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol  and triglycerides. However, these forms of exercise did not significantly improve participants' heart rate, aerobic fitness level, or scores on a general health questionnaire.

More Research on Tai Chi Benefits to Come

Pei-Jie and his team also note that some of the studies had limitations that may have skewed results. For example, in some studies participants were followed for only a year or less and in most cases those who evaluated the results also knew which participants were in each exercise group. So the researchers plan to conduct new studies in an effort to confirm the benefits of traditional Chinese exercises on cardiovascular and other chronic diseases.

If you're interested in reaping tai chi's benefits, keep in mind that these types of centuries-old exercises can be practiced while walking, standing, or even sitting, so they are appropriate for people at a variety of fitness levels. In fact, a study recently published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, involving older adults who had suffered fall-related injuries, showed that those who subsequently received six month's worth of weekly tai chi classes were 50 percent less likely to experience an injury-causing fall later on than study partipants who received leg strengthening training.

"I suggest that older adults learn tai chi exercises in a class, and practice at home at least once a day," says study coauthor Mau-Roung Lin, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Injury Prevention and Control, at Taipei Medical University.  

You can get started on these heart-healthy mind-body practices with tips from the National Institutes of Health.