For the uninitiated, tai chi may be a little daunting. The ancient Chinese exercise is hardly as mainstream as aerobics or the treadmill, but with its gentle, fluid movements and proven health benefits, it’s a natural arthritis workout.

Matthew Bosman, 38, started taking tai chi classes after back surgery, as well as psoriatic arthritis and osteoarthritis, left him unable to continue his vigorous gym workout routine.

“I was looking for something that was low-impact and not going to hurt,” says Bosman of Palm Springs, Calif., who now takes two 45-minute tai chi classes each week. “Tai chi is very calming and peaceful. I’m really skeptical about talking about chakra and all that, but it gives you a better energy.”

Tai chi also offers plenty of other benefits. Recent studies have found that the slow, graceful exercise, which originated several thousand centuries ago as a martial art, can improve balance, reduce stress and offer arthritis pain relief.

A study released by researchers at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Mass., found that tai chi can specifically reduce the pain and physical impairment of people with severe knee osteoarthritis. 

Those results were no surprise to one of the biggest proponents of tai chi for people with arthritis, Dr. Paul Lam, a family physician in Sydney, Australia. Dr. Lam developed arthritis as a teenager growing up in China when malnourishment caused cartilage development problems. He began practicing tai chi to ease his arthritis pain, eventually modifying the popular Sun style of tai chi to make it easier for people with arthritis.

“A lot of people with arthritis don't know they can do tai chi,” he says. “Even though the Sun style is slow and gentle, it does have high-risk moves as well. That’s why we modified it. We took the part that was more effective for healing and put in modification so that anyone could do it.”

Dr. Lam’s 12-step course is the basis for the Arthritis Foundation tai chi program, which includes classes led by trained experts (contact a local Arthritis Foundation office for information on classes near you) and is also available as a DVD for at-home practice. No special equipment is required – just comfortable clothing, patience and an open mind. 

Betty Broderick, 67, of Cathedral City, Calif., acknowledges that she and her classmates might have looked silly when they were first learning their tai chi poses. “When we’re in a room with mirrors, you can actually see how dorky you look,” she says, admitting she prefers when the instructor takes the students outdoors for class.

But awkwardness aside, Broderick credits regular tai chi classes for lessening pain from knee osteoarthritis and a long bout with polymyalgia rheumatica. “I can do things I didn’t think were possible before,” she says, happy that she can now take long walks and be on her feet without having to stop because of aching joints. “I can’t say enough about tai chi. It changed my life.”

To become an instructor, contact your local Arthritis Foundation office to find out when the next tai chi program instructor training workshop will be held.