My background & training is very much 'empirical scientific', so I want to see good evidence for people's claims about things like Tai Chi & other complementary therapies.
Anecdotal evidence - stories of what people may have seen or heard of from other people - is fine for generating a bit of folklore, but one of the more useful bits of my psychology degree showed me how easy it is to fool people into believing what they want to believe & take coincidence as cause & effect.
Fortunately for me, my current job gives me access to high quality international medical research databases & in the area of Tai Chi, decent research is being carried out which is showing that Tai Chi can have a lot of benefits for people's health.
There's a growing body of evidence that it can be useful for helping a number of different medical conditions, as well as being useful for maintaining health & wellbeing.
Following is a review of good quality research that's looked at Tai Chi & how it may help people's health (These are extracts from decent scientific journals, so they aren't as gushing as newspaper articles because their purpose is to be impartial & objective, stating exactly what happened when the research was conducted, rather than being sensationalist to try to sell newspapers).
I'll try & add more as I notice them & get chance, but if you want to look for yourself - check out http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez .
This is the public version of the database I use & although you don't get quite as much detail as the 'paid for' version, there's still tons of research info about every subject under the sun & its all (relatively) reliable - happy hunting.
Tai Chi for treating rheumatoid arthritis:
There is "silver" level evidence that Tai Chi improves the range of motion of the ankle, hip and knee in people with rheumatoid arthritis. It did not improve people's ability to do chores, joint tenderness, grip strength or their number of swollen joints nor did it increase their symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. But, people felt that they improved when doing Tai Chi and enjoyed it.
The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2005 Issue 4
A randomized, prospective study of the effects of Tai Chi Chuan (TCC) exercise on bone mineral density in postmenopausal women:
This is the first prospective and randomized study to show that a programmed TCC exercise intervention is beneficial for retarding bone loss in weight-bearing bones in early postmenopausal women. Long-term follow-up is needed to substantiate the role of TCC exercise in the prevention of osteoporosis and its related fracture.
Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation 2004
Tai chi may be a beneficial adjunctive treatment that enhances quality of life and functional capacity in patients with chronic heart failure who are already receiving standard medical therapy.
The American journal of medicine 2004
Tai chi and self-rated quality of sleep and daytime sleepiness in older adults: a randomized controlled trial.
Older adults with moderate sleep complaints can improve self-rated sleep quality through a 6-month, low- to moderate-intensity tai chi program. Tai chi appears to be effective as a nonpharmacological approach to sleep enhancement for sleep-disturbed elderly individuals.
Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 2004
Effects of a behavioral intervention, Tai Chi Chuan (TCC), on varicella-zoster virus (VZV) specific immunity and health functioning in older adults.
Administration of TCC for 15 weeks led to an increase in VZV-specific immunity. Gains in health functioning were found in participants who received TCC and were most marked in those older adults who had the greatest impairments of health status.
Psychosomatic medicine 2003
This study shows that under well-designed conditions, Tai Chi exercise training could decrease blood pressure and results in favorable lipid profile changes and improve subjects' anxiety status. Therefore, Tai Chi could be used as an alternative modality in treating patients with mild hypertension, with a promising economic effect.
Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, NY) 2003
Compared with the sedentary group, the TCC group had significantly better scores in resting heart rate, three minute step test heart rate, modified sit and reach, total body rotation test on both right and left side (p < 0.01), and both right and left leg standing with eyes closed (p < 0.05). According to the American Fitness Standards, the TCC group attained the 90th percentile rank for sit and reach and total body rotation test, right and left. CONCLUSION: Long term regular TCC exercise has favourable effects on the promotion of balance control, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness in older adults.
British journal of sports medicine 2000
Tai Chi posture, has recently been shown in a number of random controlled trials to improve balance, posture, vigour and general well-being in a variety of client groups. These are problems commonly encountered by people with Multiple Sclerosis. The present study was therefore designed as a pilot evaluation of the usefulness of Tai Chi/Qi Gong for people with Multiple Sclerosis. Eight individuals with Multiple Sclerosis were monitored over a 2-month baseline and 2-month intervention. Statistically significant pre to post improvements for the group as a whole were achieved on measures of depression and balance. A 21-item symptom check-list indicated small improvements over a broad range of other self-rated symptoms.
Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies 2000
A bit about terminology:
The best types of research are Randomised, controlled trials, with double blinding. Sounds very complicated, but this is what it actually means.
1: Controlled trials - As well as a group of people receiving a treatment (eg Tai Chi), there's also a Control group - a group of people with the same symptoms, so they're in the same situation as the Experimental group (the ones receiving the treatment), but they don't get any treatment. The idea is to see what would happen to people with the same situation who didn't get any treatment - would the symptoms get better on their own? With Tai Chi, sometimes other types of exercise are used instead, such as aerobics, walking, balance exercises, etc., to compare the effects of different methods.
2: Randomised - The people allocated to the Experimental & Control group are allocated in a random way, so there's no bias. For example, if people were put into a Tai Chi treatment group because they wanted to do Tai Chi, and put into a Control group because they didn't want to do Tai Chi, there might be problems associated with the Tai Chi group getting better because they were so enthusiastic & expected it to help, rather than the Tai Chi itself making any difference.
3: Double Blinding - This is a difficult one. Single Blinding is the idea is that the people in the Experimental & Control groups don't know which groups they're in - in other words, the people doing Tai Chi wouldn't know that they were doing Tai Chi, and the people not doing Tai Chi wouldn't know that either. With medications, 'placebo' tablets - containing nothing but sugar - are used so that people don't know whether they are getting the real drug or a sugar pill.
The reason for this is that the mere knowledge that a person is getting a drug can make them feel better - known as the Placebo effect, which can still be very powerful & in some respects shows how powerful the mind can be in affecting the body. If the same number of people feel better after a sugar pill as after a new drug, then the new drug is seen as 'no better than a placebo' - the only benefit is in the mind.
Double blinding means that even the people giving people the medication don't know whether they are giving a real drug or a placebo - so that they don't subconciously pass on any expectations or ideas to the people in the study that may give them clues whether they are taking a real drug or not. With a study looking at Tai Chi this is difficult, so blinded trials aren't normally possible. This is a shame as its a good way of proving that its the treatment that's having an effect on people, rather than just the expectations that people may have.