If you’re on a weight loss journey, you’re probably incorporating exercise into your new lifestyle. But if you struggle with joint pain, finding a low impact workout (like spin, yoga, or swimming) is super important. But one exercise you should also consider adding into your weight loss exercise routine is tai chi. So what exactly is tai chi?
“Tai chi is a Chinese martial art that was developed to allow warriors to fight for long periods by using efficient yet effective techniques,” says Dr. Vincent Chun, certified tai chi Instructor for Moxie.
Adds Terra Cardwell, a NASM-certified personal trainer and tai chi instructor with Fyt, “Tai Chi’s combination of slow meditative movements with focused breathing, making it an ideal exercise for improving one’s balance, flexibility, overall strength and mental health.”
Tai chi has been found to have beneficial effects on health and wellness, too—and this includes losing belly fat. A study published in May 2021 in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine found that people who did tai chi for three months (compared to those who did another exercise program or no exercise at all) were able to drop their waists (an average of .7 inches), and also sustained the loss after six months, averaging a total of 1.69 inches lost.
Related: Can Running Help You Lose Belly Fat?
“Other research suggests that belly fat can be reduced through exercise of at least 30 minutes on most days, good sleep, and good mood, as well as eating right and smoking cessation,” says Dr. Chun.
Below, we break down how to lose weight using tai chi—and the best tai chi moves for beginners.
Tai chi for weight loss
Tai chi isn’t just a way to burn calories—there are other ways it helps you lose weight, too.
Tai chi incorporates mental focus
“The mental focus required to do the forms helps to keep practitioners engaged in the activity, versus other forms of exercise (such as treadmills and stair steppers), which some people may perceive to be less interesting and therefore harder to sustain habitually,” says Dr. Chun.
Tai chi has mental health and sleep benefits
“The long, deep breaths associated with the tai chi movement is conducive to stress reduction,” says Dr. Chun. “Together with the physical exercise, this contributes to better sleep and good moods.”
Specifically, tai chi can help decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, a well-known hormone that contributes to weight gain.
“Cortisol has many necessary functions in the body, but too much cortisol from consistent stress can lead to an increase in belly fat. This is because the body’s response to stress is to release cortisol, making available energy in preparation for the fight or flight response,” says Cardwell. “Calming practices, like meditation and tai chi, can help the body maintain lower levels of cortisol, which in turn improves overall health. Improving one’s overall health can increase motivation to adopt other healthy behaviors. A calm and healthy mind allows us to make better food choices.”
Tai chi is a total-body workout
“The constant shifting of weight from one foot to the other engages the core muscles in a sustained way, working the abs and lower back, as well as quads, and glutes,” says Dr. Chun.
Adds Cardwell, “The slow controlled movements of tai chi make good use of the large muscles in your body, as well as the smaller supportive muscles for stability. These large muscle groups fire up your metabolism, increase blood circulation and improve hormone control.”
Tai chi is enjoyable
“Many people find that the gentle and graceful nature of the Tai Chi movements is quite enjoyable, and therefore they don’t see it as a chore that they must endure in order to achieve good health,” says Dr. Chun. “This allows them to keep up their tai chi routine day in, day out.”
How to do tai chi
Ready to start practicing Tai Chi for weight loss benefits? Here are 10 Tai Chi moves that will help achieve your weight loss and belly-fat related goals.
Exercise #1: Tai chi walking
“Start in preparation for a bow stance with hands clasped in front or behind you. Shift weight forward onto the front foot into the bow stance, then back onto the rear foot,” says Dr. Chun. “Turn your front foot slightly outward, at an angle that forms a ‘T’ with your rear foot. Shift weight forward while turning the torso toward the turned-out foot. Bring your rear foot forward to set up for the next bow stance. Shift weight forward and turn the torso to be square with the bow stance by the end of the weight shift. Repeat the sequence on the other side. Repeat at least 10 sets of left and right, or use this technique as your 20-30 minute walking session outdoors.”
What to focus on: Focus on a smooth shifting of weight without wobbling, especially when shifting forward onto the turned-out foot while turning the torso. This is challenging for most beginners. Also try to keep your center of mass level, i.e., don’t let your body move up and down as you shift weight.
Exercise #2: Painting the fence
“Start with your feet parallel and just under your hips with your arms by your side. Inhale and step your left leg to the side as you raise your arms to shoulder height,” says Cardwell. “Wrists are relaxed. Exhale to step your foot down as you lower your arms. Wrists are now flexed. Relax into your stance.”
Exercise #3: Wild horse parting mane
“This move builds upon tai chi walking. Instead of clasping your hands throughout the movement, you hold an imaginary tai chi ball and part your arms as you shift forward in a bow stance,” says Dr. Chun. “As you stand with feet parallel and hip width apart, place your hands on your hips. Lift your left leg to 90 degrees, then extend the leg straight. Hold for 2 seconds before bending the knee then returning the foot to the floor. Repeat the movement on the right side. Alternate the movement for a total of 2 minutes,” says Cardwell. “Shift back onto the rear foot, begin to hold the tai chi ball and continue holding the tai chi ball as you shift forward onto the turned-out front foot. This prepares you for parting your arms again for the next bow stance. Repeat at least ten times.”
What to focus on: Try to coordinate the weight shift, turning of torso, and parting of the arms in a flowing motion. Feel the legs pushing the pelvis forward, feel the spine rotating the shoulders, feel the arms being propelled by the shoulders, albeit in slow motion.
Exercise #4: Brush knee
“This move also builds upon tai chi walking. In the preparation for bow stance, let’s say with left foot forward and weight on the right foot, lift your right hand to head height and place your left hand near the right elbow,” says Dr. Chun. “As you shift weight onto the left foot, going into the bow stance, push your right palm forward, as if throwing a pie, and simultaneously brush your left hand, toward the left knee. As you shift weight back to the rear foot, draw your right hand toward your chest as if deflecting an opponent’s punch. As you shift weight onto the turned-out left foot, bring your left hand up toward your head and your right hand near the left elbow. Bring the right foot forward in preparation for the same sequence of movements on the other side. Repeat at least 10 times each side.”
What to focus on: As with wild horse parting mane, try to coordinate the weight shift, turning of torso, and the push/brush movement in a flowing manner, again feeling the legs pushing the pelvis forward, the spine rotating the shoulders, and the arm movements being driven by the shoulders.
Exercise #5: Leg kick
“Standing with feet parallel and hip width apart, place your hands on your hips. Lift your left leg to 90 degrees, then extend the leg straight. Hold for 2 seconds before bending the knee then returning the foot to the floor,” says Cardwell. “Repeat the movement on the right side. Alternate the movement for a total of 2 minutes.”
What to focus on: Leg kicks will increase your core strength to hold your leg at 90 degrees. It also increases flexibility and increases your heart rate from the contraction of large leg muscles.
Exercise #6: Sumo squats
“With feet wider than shoulder-width apart, stand with your toes turned slightly outward,” says Cardwell. “Push your hips back to squat down, keeping your chest up and knees out. Hold the squat for 5-10 seconds. Then stand back up to the starting position. Perform 10-15 sumo squats, holding each squat for 5-10 seconds.”
What to focus on: The sumo squat is similar to the horse stance in tai chi. Learning to perform this exercise will help you get into the lower squat stances, improve hip flexibility and strengthen your legs and core.
Exercise #7: Cloud hands
“In this movement, left and right arms move continuously in circular movements while the feet step sideways in a crab-like pattern, stepping out with one foot and stepping in with the other foot,” says Dr. Chun. “The left arm draws counterclockwise circles while the right arm draws clockwise circles. In coordination with side-stepping, the torso turns slightly towards the left and right. Do 10 steps to the left and 10 steps to the right.”
What to focus on: Try to draw circles in a continuous manner, with constant speed throughout the movement. As you gain more experience with this move, you should feel the overhand arm pulling, while the underhand arm is pushing/stabbing, engaging the posterior chain on one side of the body while simultaneously engaging the anterior chain on the other side.
Exercise #8: Instep kick
“Start in tree stance with your right leg behind you. Turn out the right foot to 45 degrees and raise your right arm to eye level,” says Cardwell. “Shift your weight onto your left foot. Start to draw the right leg up for the kick by bringing the knee to 90 degrees or hip height. Extend the right leg to kick out to the outstretched right hand. Return your right foot to the starting position to continue practicing right kicks or step it down in front of the left foot to begin practicing left kicks. Practice 10-15 on each side.”
What to focus on: Learning to perform the powerful kicks in tai chi requires an increase in energy utilization or calorie use.
Exercise #9: Standing plie
“Stand still in the horse stance. The mind cycles through all of the relevant body parts: feet like gentle suction cups, knees gently pushing outward, hip joints gently open, lower back kept straight and vertical by tilting pelvis (tailbone pointing forward), shoulders relaxed, scapula separated, hands held in front of belly, palms gently pressing down, crown point gently pulling upwards, lengthening the entire spine,” says Dr. Chun. “Repeat this mental cycle, making corrections each time, by relaxing muscles that have tensed up and activating muscles as needed to maintain the correct posture. Take long deep, relaxing breaths. Hold two minutes at a time, for three repetitions. As you develop the muscle strength, then gradually increase hold time to five minutes. With more practice, then do 10 minutes for two repetitions, and finally, do 30 minutes in one go.”
What to focus on: Beginners tend to feel a burning sensation in their quads. Eliminate this burn by relaxing the quads—other muscles (glutes, abs, back muscles) will pick up the slack and maintain the posture. Beginners also tend to allow the lower back to lapse into a curved form. Try to correct this through the mental cycle until the correct posture becomes second nature. Although you do not move in this form, you are activating muscles and burning calories.
Exercise #10: Cossack squat
“With feet wider than shoulder-width apart, stand with your toes turned slightly outward. Shift your weight onto the left foot. While engaging this movement, your right leg should straighten out. If you are new to this movement, you will likely feel a big stretch,” says Cardwell. “Sit your hips back and squat down as you lower your hips down to the heel of your left foot. Press the left foot into the floor and engage your core while keeping your back straight and chest upright as you return to the standing position. You can continue to practice on one side at a time or shift from left to right. Do five sets of 10 repetitions on each leg.”
What to focus on: Anytime an exercise shifts levels, such as going up and down, it requires 3x the calorie burn as performing an exercise on the same level.
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