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Tai Chi for Obesity

Medical Report: Obesity and Tai Chi

Author: Eric L. Zielinski




Despite the unlimited calorie-crunching food and beverage products out there, more Americans are obese now than ever before. More than just a vanity issue, this excess weight harms every aspect of our health. In fact, next to smoking, obesity is the second cause of preventable death in the U.S. At this point, the nation needs to wake up to the fact that diet sodas and calorie-counting snacks are not the answer to this epidemic. What this nation needs is a genuine lifestyle transformation, and scientifically proven mind-body practices like Tai Chi can offer some guidance in achieving this.




According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults who have a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight; whereas those with a BMI of over 30 are diagnosed with obesity. The following chart will help put things into perspective:



Weight Range



5' 9"

124 lbs or less

Below 18.5


125 lbs to 168 lbs

18.5 to 24.9

Healthy weight

169 lbs to 202 lbs

25.0 to 29.9


203 lbs or more

30 or higher



The following adult obesity statistics coming from the CDC offers some insight into the insidious and widespread nature of obesity in America.


  • More than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7 percent) are obese.
  • Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death.
  • In 2008, medical costs associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.
  • Non-Hispanic blacks have the highest age-adjusted rates of obesity (49.5 percent) compared with Mexican Americans (40.4 percent), all Hispanics (39.1 percent) and non-Hispanic whites (34.3 percent).
  • Among non-Hispanic black and Mexican-American men, those with higher incomes are more likely to be obese than those with low income.
  • Higher income women are less likely to be obese than low-income women.
  • There is no significant relationship between obesity and education among men. 
  • Among women, those with college degrees are less likely to be obese compared with less educated women.
  • The South has the highest prevalence of obesity (29.5 percent), followed by the Midwest (29.0 percent), the Northeast (25.3 percent) and the West (24 percent).
  • No state has a prevalence of obesity less than 20 percent.
  • Mississippi has the highest rate at 34.9 percent.
  • Colorado has the lowest rate at 20.7 percent.


According to the CDC, childhood obesity statistics are just as alarming:


  • Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
  • In 2010, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.


Immediate health effects related to childhood obesity:


  • Obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. In a population-based sample of 5- to 17-year-olds, 70 percent of obese youth had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
  • Obese adolescents are more likely to have pre-diabetes, a condition in which blood glucose levels indicate a high risk for development of diabetes.
  • Children and adolescents who are obese are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem.


Long-term health effects related to childhood obesity:


  • Children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults and are, therefore, more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis.
  • Overweight and obesity are associated with increased risk for many types of cancer, including: breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, gall bladder, thyroid, ovary, cervix, and prostate, as well as multiple myeloma and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.


Medical Research and Management


With their tag line, “Obesity happens one pound at a time. So does prevention,” the National Institute of Health (NIH) states, “Successful weight-loss treatments include setting goals and making lifestyle changes, such as eating fewer calories and being physically active.” They also insist that, “Medicines and weight-loss surgery also are options for some people if lifestyle changes aren't enough.”


Some of the generic weight-loss treatments that they support include: 


  • Cutting back on calories.
  • Eating a healthy diet.
  • Limiting fatty and fried foods.
  • Increasing physical activity.
  • Adopting behavior changes like keeping a food diary to better visual the amount of food that is eaten, changing your surroundings so you don’t overeat in certain places like in your living room watching T.V., and awarding yourself with non-food items like buying a new CD, getting a massage or taking some out of your busy day to have well-needed personal time. 


Disregarding the dozens of natural supplements and artificial weight-loss products on the market, the NIH recommends only those that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) such as:


  • Sibutramine (Meridia®)
  • Orlistat (Xenical® and Alli®)
  • Lorcaserin Hydrochloride (Belviq®) and Qsymia™


These medications, however, have been known to cause what seems to be every known side effect in the medical dictionary. Therefore, extreme caution should be taken before implementing these into your weight-loss program.


In addition to drugs, physicians will oftentimes recommend surgery. Two common weight-loss surgeries include banded gastroplasty and Roux-en-Y gastric bypass. During gastroplasty, a small pouch is created at the top of the stomach to limit the amount of food and liquid the stomach can hold. In gastric bypass, a small stomach pouch is created with a bypass around the section of the small intestine where most calories are absorbed. This surgery limits food intake and reduces the calories your body absorbs. 


Like drugs, however, these surgeries come at a cost. Primarily, by limiting the calories that are being absorbed, people who undergo gastric bypass are at a constant risk of severe nutritional deficiencies and may need to take supplements their entire lives. In addition, some common complaints people experience after these surgeries include severe infection and gastrointestinal disorders like nausea, bloating, diarrhea, and even faintness. Another issue is that these surgeries are usually the only “get out of jail free card” people get. Typically, obese patients cannot receive repeat procedures, thereby placing themselves at odds of being in a more severe medical condition if they do not manage the root cause(s) of the weight again. 


Research showing Tai Chi’s ability to help decrease obesity


Drugs and surgery only mask the symptoms and obesity is no exception. Dealing with the root issue of any disease or disorder is the only way of curing it and Tai Chi is a primary example of a proven, researched method in which people find themselves overcoming many of the mental, physical, and spiritual risk factors leading to obesity.


    • The journal Work printed an article praising Tai Chi for being a “simple, convenient workplace intervention that may promote musculoskeletal health without special equipment or showering.” This fact is oftentimes overlooked as workers will generally not take time to exercise because of the time it takes to set up, break down, clean up, or walk/drive to the gym. Fifty-two people volunteered for a 12-week program where they practiced Tai Chi twice a week, 50 minutes per session during their lunch hour. York University researchers discovered, “There were significant positive results in several areas including resting heart rate, waist circumference and hand grip strength. Results showed that the [Tai Chi] program was effective in improving musculoskeletal fitness and psychological well-being.” Directly addressing the concern many people have about not being able to exercise at work, the article concluded, “Significant improvements in physiological and psychological measures were observed, even at the large class sizes tested here, suggesting that [Tai Chi] has considerable potential as an economic, effective and convenient workplace intervention.”


  • To evaluate the effects Tai Chi training has on women with fibromyalgia, 32 women were recruited to participate in a 28-week program in which they practiced Tai Chi three times weekly. In addition to the significant relief to fibromyalgia symptoms, University of Granada researchers were able to prove, “The intervention was effective on 6-min walk, back scratch, handgrip strength, chair stand, chair sit & reach, 8 feet up & go and blind flamingo tests…The intervention was also effective in six [Short Form Health Survey 36] subscales: bodily pain, vitality, physical functioning, physical role, general health, and mental health.” Thus, indicating improved quality life and overall health/wellness. The significance of this research, although not evaluating obese individuals specifically, addresses many of the risk factors leading to obesity – bodily pain, vitality, physical functioning, physical role, general health, and mental health – were all improved after practicing Tai Chi.


  • A 2009 pilot study was printed in the Clinic Journal of Sport Medicine reporting the effects a 10-week multidisciplinary Tai Chi intervention had on 21 sedentary obese women. To date, this was the first study evaluating these factors as most research designs have concentrated on diet and conventional exercise programs; thereby, neglecting the mind-body aspect that so commonly affects weight gain. By design of the research project, these women, added Tai Chi to their regular care plan including a low calorie diet, weekly physician/psychologist/dietician group sessions, and a generic exercise program. Changes in weight, body composition, heart rate, blood pressure, mobility scores, mood, Three Factor Eating Questionnaire scores, and general self-efficacy were looked at carefully. The Tai Group “improved in resting systolic blood pressure, chair rise test, mood, and reduced percent of fat at week 10 and at 6 months follow-up. General self-efficacy was enhanced in both groups and maintained at 30 weeks.” It cannot be over-emphasized that Tai Chi has an incredible ability to produce long-standing benefits even after discontinuing the exercise. For these women to sustain reduction in obesity risk factors 20 weeks after their 10-week Tai Chi program is absolutely unheard of in the medical world and researchers need to do follow up studies to determine the far-reaching effects it can have on people.
  • This past March, a paper printed in American Journal of Health Promotion set out to determine the associations between Tai Chi, anxiety, and cardiovascular disease risk factors. One hundred thirty-three adults aged 55 years and older were recruited from a community in Taipei City, Taiwan and sixty-four volunteers attended a 60-minute Tai Chi exercise program three times per week for 12 weeks and 69 volunteers did not. Not only did the Tai Chi group show a greater drop in anxiety levels and diastolic blood pressure at the 12-week follow-up than did the control group, systolic diastolic blood pressure significantly decreased in the 6-week follow-up and 12-week follow-up tests. Furthermore, the Tai Chi achieved a greater drop in body mass index at the 6-week and 12-week follow-up visits than the controls, thus proving Tai Chi’s long-standing effects on people even after they discontinue the exercise. The researchers concluded, “The results highlight the long-term benefits of a [Tai Chi] program in facilitating health promotion by reducing anxiety and risk factors for cardiovascular diseases” as well as obesity.
  • In regards to younger people, the Journal of Pediatric Health Care published a study in 2005 describing a clinical project that used combined Tai Chi and mindfulness-based stress reduction as an educational program for middle school-aged children. Both boys and girls participated in a five-week program and statements made by the students “suggested that they experienced well-being, calmness, relaxation, improved sleep, less reactivity, increased self-care, self-awareness, and a sense of interconnection or interdependence with nature.” Subjective by design, this study offers hope that children practicing Tai Chi will receive a reduction in obesity risk factors such as are named above.


It is quite encouraging to learn that more research is being done in regards to Tai Chi’s ability to help people overcome obesity. One such study – sponsored by the National Institute of Nursing Research – is currently in the process of finalization and we hope to see the results published soon. With the expressed purpose of comparing, “The effects of Mindful Tai Chi, mindfulness meditation, walking, or a discussion group on the weight and well being of overweight and obese participants,” researchers recruited healthy, overweight or obese people over 18 years old to be randomized into one of the four groups. At this point, the results of the study have not been made public, however, we anticipate seeing fascinating data connecting Tai Chi and obesity reversal. 




In spite of the growing body of researching proving Tai Chi’s ability to reduce obesity risk factors, people haven’t fully embraced the ancient mind-body art. In fact, Harvard Medical School set out to determine the relationship between seven complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies and overweight/obese adults. The result of the research is shocking: “That adults with obesity have lower prevalence of use of yoga therapy, and similar prevalence of use of several CAM modalities, including relaxation techniques, natural herbs, massage, chiropractic medicine, tai chi, and acupuncture, compared to normal-weight individuals.” As the case may be, public health officials need to regroup and diligently focus their attention on awareness campaigns and other measures to let Americans know that CAM techniques like Tai Chi can help. Scientific research has made it abundantly clear: Tai Chi works and can help prevent and manage a number of disease processes and obesity is certainly on that list.


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