When Mao Zedong took power of China in 1949, he outlawed all traditional practices, including TCM, Tai Chi, and Qigong, and viewed them as superstitious (Chen, 2004). However, during health reforms Mao and his advisors began to see Traditional Chinese Medicine, including Tai Chi and Qigong, as an opportunity to aid in primary healthcare (Xu, 2010). Mao saw individual physical fitness as a sign of a strong nation. Qigong and Tai Chi fit into his vision of active masses, and his efforts in primary care inspired much of the Alma Ata conference in 1978 (Janes, 1999; Xu, 2010). Because Mao was a modernist who believed in science, a tremendous research effort began to explore Tai Chi and Qigong. Thus, Tai Chi and Qigong had to prove not to be merely a mystical superstition through using tools of scientific observation, which at that time were mainly large case studies (Kaptchuk, 2000; Xu, 2010).
Today in North America, Tai Chi has a variable and intense research history. It has been used and studied as an intervention on AIDS patients, haemophiliacs and just about every type of disease imaginable. One search on Google Scholar using the search term “Tai Chi” yielded 24,700 hits, and a search of the Cochrane Library website brought up reviews on Tai Chi and hypertension, headaches, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, fall reduction, and dementia.
One of the first influential studies on Tai Chi in the US was in 1996, when a team of researchers received funding from the National Institutes of Health to study Tai Chi and fall reduction (Wolf et al., 1996). There have been many studies replicating its efficacy in fall reduction, and it is included in many recommended guidelines for that purpose, including those issued by the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology (CSEP, 2008), the US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS, 2008) and the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA, 1999).
Not many studies have been conducted on exploring its potential use in primary prevention, meaning preventing disease before people get a disease. I think this lack of research has to do with many preconceived notions people have linking Tai Chi with elderly people or because it is slow. Also, there is some controversy in exercise science fields as to how much of a role VO2max plays in prevention of cardiovascular disease. Recently, there has been some research that suggests musculo-skeletal strength plays a larger role than previously thought. If that is the case Tai Chi can maybe a good exercise for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease.
Next The History of Tai Chi and Health-Part IV: Tai Chi and Chronic Disease