New Research: This Gentle Exercise May Make Your Brain 6 Years Younger

Updated: Feb. 04, 2024

Geriatrics doctors found that dementia prevention may be just a few strokes away. Plus, some exercises you can easily practice at home.

Tai chi is a practice deeply rooted in ancient Chinese martial arts that has flourished over the centuries into a globally beloved exercise form. Once a combat technique that focused on the mental aspects of fighting instead of the physical, today tai chi is a fitness and meditation practice regarded for its effect of unifying the body with the mind through the combination of breath and movement, similar to yoga but mixing slow continuous movements rather than static poses, and occasionally sharp bursts of motion.

What many tai chi practitioners appreciate most about the activity is its gentle yet effective method that can strengthen muscles, promote mobility, create mental focus, and maintain general health and wellness.

Today, tai chi is at the cutting edge of medical research, known for its substantial benefits for brain health, especially in the battle against Alzheimer’s and dementia. Recent findings by geriatrics researchers published in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Internal Medicine in November 2023 add further credibility to tai chi’s positive impact on cognitive well-being and provide a closer look at a more advanced form of the practice, showing its potential to bring even greater benefits to older adults.

Tai chi study insights

The Oregon Research Institute conducted a study via videoconferencing with 318 participants, all who were around 75 years of age and experiencing self-reported memory decline. Using the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, which is a brief test designed to evaluate cognitive abilities, participants’ average score was 25 out of 30, indicating mild cognitive impairment—a zone where memory and thinking are somewhat diminished but not severely enough for a dementia diagnosis. (A score between 26 and 30 is considered normal.)

Participants were divided into three groups: One practiced a standard form of tai chi called Tai Ji Quan, another engaged in the more challenging Cognitively Enhanced Tai Ji Quan, and the third group performed basic stretching. Each group committed to one-hour sessions twice a week for six months.

Notably, the standard Tai Ji Quan group improved their test scores by an average of 1.5 points, which Elizabeth Eckstrom, MD, MPH, study author and geriatric physician at Oregon Health and Science University equates to gaining three additional years of good brain function.

Even more striking were the results from the Cognitively Enhanced Tai Ji Quan group, which incorporated challenging tasks like spelling words backward while moving. They improved their scores by an average of three points, akin to six extra years of cognitive health—a truly remarkable finding. Dr. Eckstrom attributes this success to the combination of physical movement and the mental challenge of memorizing and executing sequences, much like learning a new dance routine.

The 5 Best Gentle Exercises for Flexibility

Tai Chi exercises

If this new research has you feeling inspired to add some tai chi to your daily routine, here are five simple exercises you can start with:

  • Breathe: Stand straight and focus on deep breathing. With each breath in, lift your arms up towards the sky. As you exhale, lower your arms back to your sides. This helps coordinate your breathing with movement and connect your body with your mind.
  • Sinking Chi: Start by inhaling and lifting your arms up, as if pulling energy toward you. Then exhale, turn your palms down, and slowly push down, like you’re pressing the energy toward the ground.
  • The Wave Hands Like Clouds: Stand relaxed and shift your weight gently from one leg to the other. Move your hands from side to side in front of you, like you’re softly pushing clouds. This exercise is said to help with relaxation and smooth mobility.
  • Brush Knee and Step Forward: Stand with your feet apart. Step forward and use the opposite hand to brush down your knee. At the same time, stretch your other hand forward, as if you’re pushing something away. Keep alternating this movement on each side.
  • Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. As you step forward, stretch one arm out in front of you, like you’re gently pushing away an object, and let the other arm sweep back. Alternate this action with each step forward.

Joining a Tai Chi class can also be a great way to engage with your community and learn more brain-longevity moves.

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