Tai chi

Tai chi (pronounced tie chee) is an ancient Chinese martial art that combines slow, focused body movements, meditation and deep breathing. Originally used for self-defence, it is now practised as a gentle form of exercise, which has been used as part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

The relaxed and deliberate movements of tai chi help develop balance, coordination and flexibility. You move from one position to the next without stopping, so that your body is in constant motion during the tai chi session. Because you must focus on breathing and the movements, tai chi helps focus your mind in a form of meditation.

There are several different schools of tai chi, but they all share the controlled flowing body movements and the focus on breathing.

Tai chi can be practised in a group or you can do the exercises on your own, after you learn the movements. Certain movements can be used to improve flexibility and balance, while the whole series of movements can help improve overall fitness.

As with any new exercise program, it’s best to talk to your healthcare team about whether tai chi is safe for you.

Tai chi as a complementary therapy

Tai chi does not treat the cancer itself. Research suggests that tai chi can help lower blood pressure, reduce stress, ease pain and stiffness and improve sleep. Small studies have shown that regular tai chi may help with depression and improve self-esteem. These studies have also suggested that regular practice of tai chi can improve quality of life.

Very small studies have shown that tai chi exercises may help women with breast cancer. These exercises may help improve shoulder movement after surgery and temporarily reduce lymphedema.

With regular practice, tai chi improves flexibility, strength, balance and fitness.

Side effects and risks of tai chi

Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about starting tai chi. Let your tai chi instructor know about your cancer diagnosis and overall health. You may have to avoid or change certain movements or postures during tai chi.

Because tai chi uses slow and gentle movements, it is thought to be a safe, low-impact physical activity. As with any exercise, your muscles or joints may be a little sore and stiff when you first start practising tai chi, especially if you haven’t been physically active in a while.

Finding a tai chi instructor

There are no rules or regulations on who can teach tai chi or run a tai chi group. When choosing a tai chi instructor, ask about their training and experience. You can learn tai chi from videos or books, but in-person instruction from a knowledgeable teacher will make it more likely that you learn the movements correctly.

Expert review and references

  • Deng GE, et al . Evidence-based clinical practice guidelines for integrative oncology: complementary therapies and botanicals. Journal of the Society for Integrative Oncology. Society for Integrative Oncology; 2009.
  • Fong SS, Ng SS, Luk WS, et al . Effects of qigong exercise on upper limb lymphedema and blood flow in survivors of breast cancer: a pilot study. Integrative Cancer Therapies. Sage Publications; 2013.
  • Galantino ML, Callens ML, Cardena GJ, et al . Tai chi for well-being of breast cancer survivors with aromatase inhibitor-associated arthralgias: a feasibility study. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. InnoVision Communications, LLC; 2013.
  • Horowitz S . Exercise to promote mind-body health in patients with cancer. Alternative and Complementary Therapies. Mary Ann Liebert; 2012.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Tai Chi: An Introduction. US Department of Health and Human Services; 2010: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/taichi/introduction.htm.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction. US Department of Health and Human Services; 2013: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/whatiscam/chinesemed.htm.
  • Smith ME & Bauer-Wu S . Traditional Chinese medicine for cancer-related symptoms. Seminars in Oncology Nursing. Elsevier; 2012.
  • Wang C, Bannuru R, Ramel J, et al . Tai chi on psychological well-being: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. BioMed Central; 2010.