Insomnia and aging often go hand and hand. Many people over the age of 60 experience sleep problems because of natural changes to their circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle, in addition to lifestyle choices.1
By definition insomnia is a sleep disorder that can make it hard to fall asleep, hard to stay asleep, or cause you to wake up too early and not be able to get back to sleep. It can be short-term or chronic, but insomnia is always taxing.
If you’re suffering with insomnia, you might be inclined to pop a sleeping pill, but before you do there’s an easy Chinese natural remedy that doesn’t involve risky drugs or even nutritional supplements.
Researchers from China recently questioned whether their traditional moving meditation called tai chi could help older people plagued with insomnia.
While tai chi is a martial art, it’s got nothing to do with slamming an opponent onto the mat. Rather, it’s a form of breathing and slow movement developed by the Chinese thousands of years ago.
In the last two decades, Westerners have discovered that it’s a perfect form of exercise for those with painful joints or who don’t fancy high-impact activities.
But can tai chi have the same effect at quelling insomnia as more vigorous conventional exercise, such as brisk walking? Researchers say yes.
Staying Asleep More Easily
Researchers compared improvements in sleep quality among 320 adults age 60 and older who had been diagnosed with insomnia. The authors reported that study participants had been suffering from insomnia for a decade or more.
Of those people, 105 were enrolled in a 12-week conventional exercise training program that included brisk walking and muscle-strengthening exercises. The second group of 105 participants attended a 12-week tai chi training program, while the control group of 110 people did not participate in either exercise plan.
The researchers reported that participants in the exercise group had an average of 17 fewer minutes of “wake time” following sleep onset per night compared to the control group, while those in the tai chi group had 13 fewer minutes of wake time per night.
“We found that both tai chi and conventional exercise led to improvements in … sleep efficiency, wake time after sleep onset and number of awakenings,” during the night, the researchers wrote.
Furthermore, the researchers reported “the beneficial effects on sleep from both intervention groups remained evident 24 months after experimental intervention.”
Their results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).2 This isn’t the first-time researchers pointed to the sleep benefits provided by tai chi.
Tai Chi Improved Sleep Quality
In a study published in the journal Sleep, researchers at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles, put tai chi to the test.3
The scientists studied a group of 112 healthy, older adults between the ages of 59 and 86, randomly assigning them to two groups. One group practiced tai chi for 25 weeks, and one took classes in healthy lifestyles, including sleep hygiene, for the same time period.
At the end of the study, the group that performed tai chi reported a significant improvement in the quality of their sleep on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, a self-rated questionnaire.
“They took the least time to fall asleep, had fewer awakenings, and felt better rested. Overall, their sleep was better,” states lead author Dr. Michael Irwin. “The amount of sleep across the night was longer, and they slept a greater amount of time.”
Why is tai chi so helpful for sleep? Dr. Irwin says it targets stress, which we know can contribute to sleep woes.
“And it has no significant side effects, unlike some sleep medications, which can increase the risk of falls during the night and can have carry-over effects that impair concentration and attention during the day—especially in older adults.”
We’ve covered the seemingly endless benefits of both physical exercise– such as brisk walking– and tai chi in past issues of this publication.4 Both exercise and tai chi have been linked to pain relief, better brain aging, and more.
If you’d like to try tai chi, experts advise practicing this activity while maintaining a meditative, relaxed mindset. And that relaxed state of mind is key to maintaining good sleep and overall good health in this stressed-out world.
Tai chi classes are often conducted in outdoor public parks. These classes offer social interaction, which is also important for healthy aging. If you can’t find a nearby class, there are plenty of instructional videos available online.
- AMA Netw Open. 2021;4(2):e2037199.
- Sleep, Volume 31, Issue 7, July 2008, Pages 1001–1008,