Written by Timothy Huzar — Fact checked by Alexandra Sanfins, Ph.D.
In a new study, researchers conclude that tai chi is as effective as conventional exercise at reducing people’s waist circumference.
The research, which appears in the Annals of Internal Medicine, provides evidence for including tai chi in global physical activity guidelines.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with obesity are at greater risk of developing serious conditions, such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
However, researchers suggest that the location of fat deposits in the body — particularly in a person’s abdomen, known as central obesity — is also a risk factor for disease.
Furthermore, a person who does not have obesity may still have significant enough fat deposits in their abdomen for this to be a risk factor.
An effective proxy for determining the amount of fat deposits in a person’s abdomen is to measure their waist circumference.
According to a report on this topic, “decreases in waist circumference are a critically important treatment target for reducing adverse health risks for both men and women.”
The rise of tai chi
Tai chi is a mind-body practice that originated in China, and it is particularly popular throughout Asia. Tai chi (so-called moving meditation) combines breathing and meditation, and it is becoming increasingly popular in the rest of the world, with, as of 2007, over 2 million people practicing it in the United States.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, tai chi involves “certain postures and gentle movements with mental focus, breathing, and relaxation.” It can be helpful for improving balance and stability and reducing back and knee pain.
Tai chi is a low impact form of physical activity, so it could be of value for people who may find it difficult to do more vigorous exercise.
However, its value in reducing waist circumference specifically has not been clear.
To address this, a team of researchers in Hong Kong conducted a study. Between February 27, 2016, and March 17, 2018, the researchers recruited people over the age of 50 years with central obesity. In total, 543 people agreed to take part in the study.
The researchers then randomly assigned these participants to one of three groups of equal numbers.
- The first group took a 12-week, instructor-led tai chi course and met for 1 hour three times each week.
- The second group took an instructor-led moderate exercise class, meeting three times each week for 1 hour over 12 weeks. The class involved brisk walking and muscle strengthening.
- The researchers did not give the third group any physical activity to do, so this group acted as a control.
The scientists measured the participants’:
- waist circumference
- body weight
- high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol level
- triglyceride level
- plasma glucose level
- blood pressure
They took these measurements three times: once before the intervention, once on completion of the intervention, and once 6 months after the completion of the intervention.
Waist circumference reduction
The researchers found that the waist circumference of the participants in the tai chi and conventional exercise groups reduced relative to that of those in the control group, with neither showing a statistically significant difference from the other.
The tai chi and conventional exercise groups also saw a slowing down of the decrease of HDL cholesterol levels, which is a positive sign regarding a person’s metabolic health. Body mass was also slightly reduced for the tai chi and conventional exercise groups.
Other measures of metabolic health did not change, however. Corresponding study author Dr. Parco M. Siu, from the University of Hong Kong in Pok Fu Lam, told Medical News Today that “although some previous preliminary research suggested that tai chi led to favorable changes in cardiometabolic parameters, our study did not replicate the beneficial effects on those parameters in older adults with central obesity, except for HDL [cholesterol].”
“It could be due to the specific inclusion criterion (i.e., central obesity) in our study or the different combinations of cardiometabolic parameters that existed in our participants at baseline. Further research addressing how cardiovascular risk factors affect tai chi’s effects on metabolic parameters are needed.”
Dr. Siu told MNT that the results are valuable for “everyone who would like to improve [their] health by regularly participating in exercise — particularly those who do not like conventional exercise, including aerobic exercise and muscle-strengthening exercise.”
He continued, “Our study shows that tai chi can be an effective alternative to conventional exercise in the management of central obesity. This is good news for middle-aged and older adults who have central obesity but may be averse to conventional exercise due to preference or limited mobility.”
“The key point is that people can have an option, such as tai chi, for managing central obesity and metabolic syndrome if they do not prefer conventional exercise.” – Dr. Parco M. Siu
According to Dr. Siu, the team’s findings contribute to emerging evidence of the various health benefits of tai chi.
“While it is known to be a suitable activity for older people, including those who are not active, there previously has been little evidence of tai chi’s health benefits.”
“Nonetheless, tai chi, a gentle form of physical activity, has been shown to have various health benefits including fall prevention, osteoarthritis management, cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal fitness, cardiometabolic health, and psychological health.”
“Future research is needed to fully reveal the health benefits of tai chi,” he continued. “Of note, preliminary studies have shown the favorable effects of tai chi on brain health, such as mood and cognition. It would be interesting to further investigate the brain health benefits of tai chi.”
The researchers hope that their findings provide evidence for including tai chi in global physical activity guidelines for middle-aged and older adults with central obesity.