Tai Chi for Arthritis: Benefits, Exercises, and Principles

tai chi for arthritisTai chi for arthritis is an alternative form of exercise that has been known to relieve pain and improve flexibility and balance. Instructors contend that anyone at any age can practice this century old Chinese martial art. In fact, most people can learn the basic tai chi for arthritis movements in just eight to 12 lessons.

Many people who practice tai chi like it so much that they continue doing it for years. Some of the world’s leading instructors suggest that this is because it’s easy to learn and has many benefits, even though it’s a gentle exercise.


Like other forms of exercise, tai chi involves different levels. Tai chi for arthritis is said to have a unique ability to grab people’s interests, so a large number of newcomers to this form of exercise tend to stick with it.

Tai Chi and Its Effect on Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients

Rheumatoid arthritis is a progressive disease that causes inflammation to the joints and leads to painful deformities in the fingers, wrists, feet, and ankles. For many RA sufferers, mobility becomes an issue. There is some evidence to suggest that tai chi for rheumatoid arthritis is helping extend mobility for many people.

There has been a lot of research into exercise and rheumatoid arthritis. Since the mid-70s, extensive studies have demonstrated that regular exercise plays an important role in improving function in people who have RA.

At the same time, it has been noted that high impact exercise can actually cause further joint damage. The American College of Rheumatology (ACR) recommends physical activity as opposed to impact sports.

One study led by experts at Tufts-New England Medical Center looked at whether 12 weeks of tai chi would be a good additional therapy for patients suffering from RA. Until this point, tai chi for rheumatoid arthritis had not been well studied.

During the study, the most popular style of tai chi – Yang – was used. The participants were split into two groups: a tai chi exercise group and a control group. The control group was provided with information about nutrition for RA, while the other group actually took part in tai chi.

After 12 weeks, 50 percent of those doing tai chi received a 20 percent ACR response. ACR is the standard criteria to measure the effectiveness of arthritis treatments in clinical trials for rheumatoid arthritis. The control group response was O percent.

Those who received an ACR 20 reported improvement in joint tenderness and joint swelling. Overall, the tai chi group improved in 25 other categories of effectiveness; however, the control group only improved in a limited number of secondary outcomes.

The study results seem to suggest that tai chi is a safe therapy for adults with rheumatoid arthritis. Additionally, the findings support the idea that tai chi does not further damage joint symptoms.

There are five major styles of tai chi. The Sun style tai chi for arthritis is appealing because it involves smooth, flowing movements and not vigorous or quick moves like some other styles.

Benefits of Tai Chi for Arthritis

There are many benefits to tai chi exercises for arthritis, including improved flexibility, which helps keep a person mobile; better muscle strength to help keep the joints stable; as well as overall improved fitness, since it can strengthen the heart and lungs to boost stamina.

Tai chi exercises for arthritis tend to be effective because the practice helps people relax. A 2007 survey by the National Institute of Health indicated that more than 2.3 million Americans participant in some form of tai chi.

Here’s a look at the many benefits of tai chi:

  • Improved physical condition, including muscle strength, flexibility, and coordination
  • Improved balance and a decreased risk of falling
    Easing of stiffness and subsequent pain
  • Improved sleep
  • Improved circulation of body fluid and blood to enhance healing
  • Reduced stress and anxiety, resulting in less depression and enhanced immunity.

During a study involving geriatric patients, the slow-motion tai chi Chuan was evaluated as a potential health-related fitness practice. Seventy-six seniors took part in the study – some did Chuan while others were part of a control group.

The tai chi group practiced regularly with a 20-minute warm-up, 24 minutes of specific tai chi Chuan training, and a 10-minute cool-down. Men in the tai chi group showed 19 percent higher peak oxygen intake in comparison to the control group, while women doing tai chi had 18 percent higher peak oxygen intake.

The tai chi Chuan group also seemed to gain greater flexibility and had a lower percentage of body fat compared to the control group. All of this suggests that tai chi benefits the elderly population as it can serve as an effective conditioning exercise.

Tai Chi Exercises for Arthritis

While there are many different tai chi exercises for arthritis, we have listed a few popular routines below.

Tai chi shoulder exercises:

  • Stand with legs shoulder-width apart and look straight ahead
  • Hold hand out in front of you with palms facing down
  • Slowly lift your hands until they’re at about shoulder height and turn your wrists so that your palms are now facing you. Turn your palms toward your face and gently push your chin back.
  • Push your palms out in front of you and slowly lower your arms down to your sides while bending your neck down gently

Tai chi neck stretches:

  • Stand with legs shoulder-width apart and look straight ahead
  • Hold your arms and hands out on your sides with the palms facing up
  • Lift your arms up toward your head but when they reach shoulder height, turn your palms and push your arms down as if you are pushing air.
  • Repeat this cycle several times

Tai chi spine stretches:

  • Stand with legs shoulder-width apart and hold your hands out in front of you as if you’re holding a ball. One hand is on top of the ball and one hand is supporting the bottom of the ball.
  • Take the hand under the ball and stretch it up as if you’re trying to touch the ceiling with your palm.
  • Go back to the ball position and switch hands so that you stretch up on the other side.
  • Make sure that you don’t fully extend your joints. This is a gentle stretching exercise.

Principles of Tai Chi for Arthritis

There are ten principles associated with the practice of tai chi, but three of them are of particular importance when it comes to using this form of exercise for arthritis. Those principles are related to movement, body, and unity of the internal and external.

Movement principle: It may seem odd at first, but before long, those new to tai chi will understand what it means to seek stillness in movement. When doing tai chi, there is always a state of tranquility. Some people compare it to the eye in the center of a storm. With this perspective, it is easier to focus on what you’re trying to accomplish.

Body principles: The unity of the upper body and the lower body is important in tai chi. Unity begins with the feet being rooted from the earth then bringing that connection up through the legs, directing it to the waist, and then onto the shoulders while still allowing energy to flow through the hands. The body has to be relaxed so energy can flow through.


Internal and external principle: This means that the mind, body, and breath come from one single focus. The mind is considered the spirit and commander of the body, while the body follows and responds without distraction. When there is no interruption, it is effortless.

Although tai chi doesn’t seem aggressive, it is a powerful exercise. Originally developed as a self-defense discipline and to promote inner peace, tai chi is now richly researched as more people are reporting health benefits, including arthritis sufferers.

Also read: Preventing arthritis in hand with exercise and natural remedies

Author Bio

Emily Lunardo studied medical sociology at York University with a strong focus on the social determinants of health and mental illness. She is a registered Zumba instructor, as well as a Canfit Pro trainer, who teaches fitness classes on a weekly basis. Emily practices healthy habits in her own life as well as helps others with their own personal health goals. Emily joined Bel Marra Health as a health writer in 2013.



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