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The gentle martial art known as tai chi offers multiple benefits for women who have osteoporosis, including prevention of non-vertebral fractures, better balance, and fewer falls.

Practicing tai chi regularly can prevent falls and fractures in women (and men) who have osteoporosis. It also provides flexibility and balance and restores calm.

Tai chi is a martial art that is often described as a moving meditation. It consists of a series of movements that relax the mind and strengthen the mind. There are many different schools of tai chi, but they all share some basic health characteristics:
  • Mindfulness. It is impossible to perform tai chi without being aware of your body in the present moment. This awareness is cultivated by focusing on the body's positions, movements, and sensations.
  • Imagery. The movements of tai chi are described in terms of images: Part the wild horse's mane. White crane spreads its legs. Wave hands like clouds. These images can replace sensory input when nerve connections are faulty, as in peripheral neuropathy.
  • Natural breathing. Breathing in tai chi is rhythmic and deep. This improves oxygenation and gas exchange.
  • Structural alignment. Movements in tai chi require the least amount of effort, allowing the greatest amount of control.
  • Flexibility. Circular motions relax and release muscle tension. They help shift both mind and body into a deeper state of relaxation.
  • Balance and strength. Placing the weight of the body on one foot at a time with a slight flex trains the muscles in the legs and core.
  • Social support. Tai chi is typically practiced with other people, who provide moral, social, and sometimes physical support.

Tai chi strengthens body, mind, and soul. Over the last 50 years, there have been over  500 clinical trials in at least 21 countries, and over 120 scientific reviews of the usefulness of tai chi in treating a variety of health conditions, including osteoporosis. 

Ways tai chi helps people who have osteoporosis

There are five clinically verified ways that practicing tai chi can improve the lives of people who have metabolic bone disease.

  • Preventing falls. There have been 14 clinical studies that have shown that practicing tai chi helps to prevent falls, and preventing falls, of course, prevents fractures. Tai chi reduces the risk of falls by improving both static and dynamic balance. It also helps older people move confidently with less fear of falling. The usefulness of tai chi for falls prevention is greater in older people who live independently than it is for people who live in nursing homes.
  • Osteoarthritis. It is not unusual to have both arthritis and osteoporosis. The pain and immobility caused by osteoarthritis aggravate the risks of falls posed by osteoporosis. Ten clinical trials confirm that tai chi is associated with improvements in osteoarthritis, especially for the knee. One study confirmed that tai chi reduces pain and stiffness and improves range of motion. The American College of Rheumatology actually encourages tai chi for people who have osteoarthritis of the hip, hand, and knee.
  • Parkinson's disease.  Parkinson's disease and osteoporosis make a crippling combination. There have been eight clinical trials, including a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, that confirm that Parkinson's patients who take medication and also practice tai chi achieve better balance than Parkinson's patients who take medication alone.
  • Respiratory capacity.  Six studies have confirmed that tai chi improves lung capacity and reduces the number of times people feel out of breath.
  • Cognitive function. It's not too much to say that tai chi makes you smarter. Five studies have confirmed that it increases mental processing speed. A review of studies found that it helps to focus attention.
There is good evidence that tai chi helps people overcome the effects of depression, stroke, and dementia. There is some evidence that it helps people deal with fibromyalgia, and hypertension. All of these benefits can make a critical difference in the lives of people who have osteoporosis. But what is the evidence that tai chi has direct benefits for osteoporosis itself.

What to expect from tai chi for osteoporosis

Just a handful of studies have looked at the direct benefits of tai chi for osteoporosis. One study found that there were reduced rates of demineralization of bone in postmenopausal women who practiced tai chi compared to women who were sedentary. Those results can be interpreted as tai chi slows down osteoporosis, but it is not enough to stop osteoporosis without other forms of medical intervention. Another study failed to find consistent improvement in bone mineral density after practicing tai chi, but it looked at women who were receiving no other treatment at all. A third study found that the combination of tai chi and resistance exercise helped to preserve bone mineral density in older women with osteoporosis even in the absence of pharmaceutical treatment.

The best way to interpret these results is that tai helps if you have osteoporosis, but it is not all that you need to do. Medications and proper nutrition are still necessary. But regular practice of tai chi will help you avoid falls and fractures so you can live a longer and more active independent life.

  • Chang TJ, Ting YT, Sheu SL, Chang HY. [Effects of tai chi in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis: a systematic review].Hu Li Za Zhi. 2014 Oct.61(5):75-84. doi: 10.6224/JN.61.5.75. Review. Chinese. PMID: 25271035.
  • Kong LJ, Lauche R, Klose P, Bu JH, Yang XC, Guo CQ, Dobos G, Cheng YW. Tai Chi for Chronic Pain Conditions: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Sci Rep. 2016 Apr 29
  • 6:25325. doi: 10.1038/srep25325. Review.PMID: 27125299.
  • Lee MS, Pittler MH, Shin BC, Ernst E. Tai chi for osteoporosis: a systematic review. Osteoporos Int. 2008 Feb
  • 19(2):139-46. Epub 2007 Oct 23. Review. PMID: 17955276.
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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