Tai chi — the traditional Chinese practice sometimes described as “meditation in motion,” involving controlled, usually gentle movements — was found to be comparable to conventional exercise in reducing abdominal fat in older adults in a new study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.
Despite the popularity of tai chi around the world — it’s performed by an estimated two million Americans, according to a Healio article on the study — there have been few studies looking at specific health benefits from the practice. For the latest study, the participants were 543 adults ages 50 and older with abdominal obesity (also known as central obesity). Abdominal obesity, in particular, has been linked to worse health outcomes than carrying excess body fat in other areas of the body — including a higher risk for dangerous heart problems such as atrial fibrillation, and for diabetes complications including chronic kidney disease and retinopathy (eye disease).
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Participants were randomly assigned, in equal numbers, to one of three groups (181 in each group). The first group did a conventional exercise program involving aerobic activity and strength training, the second group did a tai chi program, and the third group did no exercise program, for a period of 12 weeks. At the beginning of the study, after 12 weeks, and then again after 38 weeks, the researchers measured participants’ waist circumference, as well as their body weight and body-mass index (BMI, a measure of body weight that takes height into account), HDL (high-density lipoprotein, or “good”) cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure.
Tai chi found effective for reducing abdominal fat
From the beginning of the study to week 12, the group that did no exercise intervention saw their waist circumference increase by an average of 0.8 centimeters (0.3 inches). In contrast, both exercise groups saw a reduction in waist circumference — by an average of 1.0 centimeters (0.4 inches) in the tai chi group and 0.5 centimeters (0.2 inches) in the conventional exercise group. While these numbers may seem small, they both represent a significant difference compared with the no-exercise group. Both exercise groups also saw small reductions in body weight and higher HDL cholesterol, compared with the no-exercise group. What’s more, all of these benefits were maintained after 38 weeks in the tai chi group, while the conventional exercise saw a continuation of all benefits except improved HDL cholesterol.
The researchers concluded that tai chi is an effective approach to reducing abdominal fat in adults with excess fat in this area of the body. It’s unknown why tai chi was found to be potentially even more effective than conventional forms of exercise in reducing belly fat — but these results demonstrate that if reducing your waistline is a goal, there are good alternatives to the more usual recommendations of aerobic exercise and strength training.
Want to learn more about staying active? Read “Picking the Right Activity to Meet Your Fitness Goals,” “Making Exercise Fun,” and “Exercise Recovery Tips.”