Practising tai chi

Activities such as tai chi offer many wellbeing benefits. Rachael Healy meets tai chi fan Trevor Oldfield and an exercise expert.

Trevor Oldfield relaxing after a tai chi practice

“I do tai chi about three times a week,” says 69-year-old Trevor Oldfield. “There’s so much satisfaction when you complete a series of movements, it’s unbelievable.”

Former ambulance worker Trevor lives in Kent with his wife Susan and has been doing tai chi since 1980. He’s always enjoyed classes, learning about the history of tai chi and mastering new moves. But in the past decade, as he’s dealt with a heart attack and having both a pacemaker and ICD fitted, tai chi has benefited him in new ways.

“It’s helped me mentally,” Trevor says. “After my heart problems started, I was a nervous wreck. You get quite depressed with these things, and it helps me deal with depression as well.”

I’ve got a pacemaker and an ICD, but I can still do tai chi and enjoy it

Trevor

As Trevor’s symptoms developed and he discovered he’d need a pacemaker, he slipped into negative thought patterns. “You think: ‘Oh god, I’m going to die soon’,” he explains. “I used to think about death a lot. It’s really good to be in a quiet room and concentrate on my breathing – that’s what’s helped me along.”

‘Mindful’ activities such as tai chi can offer a boost to mental health beyond that of other physical activities. “Yoga and tai chi teach you to concentrate on your breathing and really be in the moment, coming away from negative thought patterns,” says Dr Florence Kinnafick, Lecturer in Psychology at Loughborough University. “It allows you to focus on something that isn’t your mental health and to rid your mind of all of your daily worries. That’s something that is really positive about yoga and tai chi.”

Trevor has found that this meditative element allows him to become fully absorbed in his tai chi movements. “You can imagine you’re down at the coast, in the park or walking through a field,” he says. “You move and breathe in union. You feel really relaxed, really good. It’s superb.

“We do an exercise called silk reeling, and if you do that smoothly, it’s like watching a waterfall go over, crashing on the ground. I can do it for hours and not even notice the time.”

Several small studies have suggested that mindfulness – being in the moment and focusing solely on your movements – can improve your experience of physical activity. It may help increase the satisfaction you get from your chosen activity, and help you make positive choices to fulfill any activity goals.

Multiple benefits of tai chi

Trevor Oldfield practicing tai chi

Trevor’s favourite tai chi routine involves a large fan, above, that he incorporates into movements.

Dr Kinnafick researches factors that influence exercise habits, and the relationship between physical activity and psychological wellbeing. She says that the psychological benefits of physical activity go beyond satisfaction and enjoyment.

“We know that exercise improves your mood and it makes you feel less tired,” she says. “There’s also the element of learning new skills through exercise and understanding what it means to be active. Then once you feel more competent, you feel more in control and that is directly linked with psychological wellbeing. You might also start to feel better in yourself physically – that can improve your physical self-worth and self-esteem.”

Dr Kinnafick recently evaluated an exercise programme for people with mental health problems led by Mind, the mental health charity.

[In the Mind study] people who exercised reported that they felt higher levels of energy on that day and could also sleep better. They also felt better the day after.

Dr Kinnafick

“Often people exercise in social situations – you feel more connected with those around you and therefore feel happier. With the Mind work, we found that some people wouldn’t see anybody from one week to the next apart from in these group sessions, so having that human interaction was really important.”

As well as practising at home, Trevor goes to two classes each week and has found that the social side of his hobby helps to lift his mood. “It’s good going to a class because you meet lots of people,” he says. “We all have a great deal of fun together; we’re a support for each other.”

Some of the benefits to your wellbeing can be felt straight away. “[In the Mind study] people who exercised reported that they felt higher levels of energy on that day and could also sleep better. They also felt better the day after,” says Dr Kinnafick. “In terms of mental health, your general overriding mood, that would potentially take longer.”

A recent study of nearly 34,000 people also found that physical activity could help protect your mental health by halting the onset of depression and anxiety. It concluded that 12 per cent of depression cases could be prevented if everyone did at least one hour of physical activity per week.

Tai chi for all

Tai chi is suitable for people of all physical abilities. “It’s very accessible to everybody,” Trevor says. “I’ve got a pacemaker and an ICD fitted, both knees are complete replacements, and I’m registered disabled. But I can still do tai chi and enjoy it. I don’t go for a run or anything like that, but I still stand in the middle of the hall for an hour waving my arms about and doing breathing exercises.”

Trevor plans to keep advancing his tai chi skills, and has ambitions to make it an even bigger part of his life. Positive experiences with his own tai chi teachers, who he describes as “fantastic” and “patient”, have inspired him. “I like to look to the future now,” says Trevor. “I’d like to be a tai chi instructor for people with disabilities. If people don’t think they can do it, I’ll tell them my medical history. They’ll think: ‘Blimey! If he can do it, we can.’”

Getting started

  • Find an activity you enjoy. You’ll get a bigger wellbeing boost from doing something you like, and you’re more likely to stick to it.
  • Fancy tai chi? You can find classes near you at The Tai Chi Union for Great Britain. Click on ‘instructors’, then ‘find a teacher’ and select your region.
  • Lots of leisure centres, village halls and community centres host tai chi and yoga classes. Call your local venue to check their timetable.
  • If you have a health condition, check with your GP before taking up a new physical activity.

More useful information