Tai Chi is a martial arts form developed in ancient china. Today it’s still practiced as a means of self-defense but has gained worldwide popularity as an exercise to benefit health. It consists of a series of flowing postures or movements performed in sequence, generally very slowly. You may have seen folks practicing at the park or your local gym. It’s also a favorite pastime of the popular Survivor, Coach Wade.

While 5 traditional styles are typically identified, many more exist today, which often emphasize health, harmony, stress relief and meditation. Movements are generally named for animals or nature (such as “White Crane Spreads its Wings”) and are rendered with deliberate gentleness and coordinated breathing. The desired effect is both to calm and quiet the mind and relax the body to promote the unblocked flow of chi, or vital energy, throughout the body.

Although Tai Chi’s virtues are extolled in Chinese Medicine, western science has also begun to study its effects. According to Harvard Medical School Health Publications,* studies have shown benefits for arthritis, low bone density, breast cancer, heart disease, heart failure, hypertension, sleep failure, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and stroke, among others. Studies have also shown improvement in muscle strength, flexibility, balance and aerobic conditioning, as well as relief from anxiety, depression and chronic pain. There’s also research to support Tai Chi as a gentle and low-impact exercise choice for seniors.

Before you take your first Tai Chi class, do some research and ask around—certification is not required for Tai Chi teachers, so it’s best to go on good recommendations. You may even want to observe a class, and speak with the instructor about any individual health concerns you may have. It’s also a good idea to check in with you doctor, especially if you have injuries, chronic health conditions or balance issues.

Many of the studies conducted have taken place over a 12-week period. A 12-week class should give you enough time to decide if Tai Chi works for you. If you decide to take it up, consider building it into your life in the long term to maintain maximum benefit. It’s an exercise that, once you learn some basic movements, fits well into a busy schedule, and the basic concepts may also assist in maintaining a calm mind in stressful situations.