It’s Never Too Late (Or Early) to Try Tai Chi. Here’s How.

The gentle art is perfect for lifelong fitness

February 9, 2023 6:18 am
A group practicing Tai Chi on a cold day in a New York City park.
The practice encourages fluid motions with loose muscles. It's the quintessential "gentle" exercise.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Last time Statista checked, there were less than four million Americans over the age of six regularly practicing Tai Chi.

But the overwhelming majority of these trainees, unsurprisingly, are over the age of sixty. Even in a golden age of inclusive, accessible and at-times experimental fitness — e.g. ClassPass, YouTube channels, Nike workout classes on Netflix — Tai Chi remains a “retiree exercise,” something we assume we’ll graduate into sooner or later, like power walking, water aerobics or line dancing.

Why wait the majority of one’s life, though, to begin practicing something that can help extend it? The art has hundreds of millions of trainees throughout the world, of all ages. There are over 100 million training in Tai Chi in China alone, where the martial art originated nearly 600 years ago.

Here’s a handy beginner’s guide to learning Tai Chi, explaining what it can do for your body and brain, why right now is the perfect time to give it a go and how to get started.

DeNiro was a Tai Chi natural by the end of The Intern, a 2015 septuagenarian dramedy.
Photo by Alessio Botticelli/GC Images

“Meditation in motion”

A few years back, Tai Chi was in the news when one of its greatest modern students (a man named Wei Lei), took on an MMA fighter (Xu Xiaodong). The bout was intended to test the fighting functionality of Tai Chi, which, in Chinese lore, is frequently associated with superhuman strength.

Only, Xu Xiaodong defeated Wei Lei in under 30 seconds. In a street brawl format, one man’s shadowboxing couldn’t defeat the other’s…boxing-boxing. The anecdote’s a reminder that while Tai Chi is still taught for self-defense purposes, the activity’s staying power has been in its capacity to loosen joints, relax bodies and remind people to breathe. This Yang iteration is the most popular version of Tai Chi today.

For newcomers, Tai Chi is essentially performed in slow-motion. There are 108 moves, all of which are practiced in a fluid, sequential state and accompanied by circular breathing (inhale through the nose, exhale through the lips — long, slow and over and over again).

Modern Tai Chi’s emphasis on weight transfer makes it a multicomponent exercise — but its added attention to breathwork, energy and the here-and-now elevates it to a form of active meditation. Devotees call it an “internal art.” Kids these days would likely invoke the “flow state.”

Gentle workouts > HIIT

Unlike other bodyweight exercises, in which one’s muscles, tendons and joints are stretched and taut, Tai Chi relies on a “loose” back-and-forth: more of a ballet than a bench press. But while moving so slowly may look easy to the untrained eye, Tai Chi’s library of moves recruits practically every muscle in the body.

Considering that the simple act of putting your arms above your head is a strength-training boon (try it at your desk, it’s sneaky hard), perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that moving them through space — “pushing” the air, while rocking from one foot to the other — is so good for you. Learning Tai Chi has a positive impact on muscle strength and bone density, and when combined with resistance bands, can turn your health around in a hurry.

It also has a positive correlation to aerobic fitness, which makes sense, considering you’re asking your heart to pump along to a focused flow for anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour. One study a few years back found that men who took up Tai Chi were as likely to lower their risk of death as counterparts who adopted jogging.

At the start of a year where trainees are actively rejecting all-you-can-sweat HIIT exercises, in favor of longevity-conveying exercises like long walks, yoga, Pilates and recovery fitness classes (perhaps a new dawn for the millenial relationship to fitness, in particular), Tai Chi fits the mellower mold.

More Reviews

It’s Never Too Late to Become a Runner. Here’s How.
Looking to get off the couch but no idea where to begin? We’ve got you.

Stay on your feet

In reclaiming Tai Chi from its musty, septuagenarian status, though, you should know that mastering the art now will still pay dividends deep into your elderly years. (One of those dividends being…the opportunity do even more Tai Chi.) The more time young people spend on their feet in their younger years, the better chance they have of avoiding a costly tumble when they’re old and gray.

Falls in old age are now so common (36 million happen each year in America) that the CDC considers them a public health concern. These incidents can lead to fractured wrists or hips, and just as costly — battered self-confidence. When seniors feel they’ve lost their physical faculties, they’re less likely to test them, which cruelly accelerates their conditions in kind.

Tai Chi is an sustainable way to test one’s balance in a predictable arena. There’s no risk of dropping equipment on your toe, or tripping over roots in the forest. Standing and walking are easier when you’ve made a lifetime habit of standing and “White Crane Spreads its Wings”-ing.

Study after study has confirmed that learning Tai Chi is a gamechanger for balance; and trainees aren’t just better on balance boards, making use of twitchier reaction times in their calves and hamstrings. They’re more fearless on them.

How to get started

If learning Tai Chi holds some sort of appeal or intrigue for you, this is your permission slip to forget your age and go do it. Don’t feel a need to explain yourself. Too often, our fitness intrigues devolve into dinner party fodder: I wanted to restore my energy, I wanted to pair it with my marathon training, I wanted to get out of the house. Who cares? What does it matter? At its essence, Tai Chi is movement, taught in a beautiful, low-impact way. It’s for everyone, for any reason.

Before you start booking classes — either at a Taoist facility, at a park on Saturday mornings, or at the YMCA, you should start here. This video, uploaded by a Tai Chi expert named Jake Mace, conveys 10, beginner-friendly moves, in a format that’s earned rave reviews from his followers.

In the comments, students have declared that the moves have helped them wake up early, grieve the death of parents, come to grips with back pain, obesity, a cancer diagnosis…you name it. Our recommendation? Watch the video (or something similar, YouTube is a big place), and memorize the moves from your desk. Then bring the practice to your living room, or backyard, or rooftop, perhaps in the sun with some relaxing tones in your ears, and give it a shot. Whatever you do, don’t forget to breathe.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!