MONTREAL - Doing tai chi helps women counter the age-related loss of muscle strength, a new study suggests.

The study involved post-menopausal women who took a 12-week tai chi course, with sessions three times per week.

It found that after 12 weeks the women had an eight per cent improvement in their leg muscle strength and a 17 per cent improvement in balance.

Tai chi is a slow, meditative martial art developed in China centuries ago. People practise tai chi for a variety of reasons, from health and relaxation to self-defence.

This was just the type of exercise that study director Mylene Aubertin-Leheudre, a professor of kinanthropology at Universite du Quebec a Montreal, was looking for.

Many women stop exercising during menopause, according to Aubertin-Leheudre.

"Around 55 per cent of post-menopausal Canadian women are sedentary," she said.

Aubertin-Leheudre wanted to test an exercise that was "soft but with enough effect on health," and felt tai chi would be a good fit.

While tai chi is mainly known as a low impact exercise -- some practitioners refer to it as "moving meditation" -- it is also the basis of some of the world's most famous martial arts, such as kung fu.

Tai chi can be used for defence and some forms are done with sticks and swords.

Aubertin-Leheudre was interested in whether the gentler tai chi might help counteract the adverse effects of menopause -- including the loss of muscle mass and muscle strength.

In addition to increasing the women's muscle strength, the tai chi sessions also led to a smaller waistline for the women involved.

They did not, however, prevent a loss of muscle mass.

The findings were published by the journal Menopause last month.

"The point in tai chi is you are not working on muscle mass, because it's not (strenuous enough)," said Aubertin-Leheudre.

"But it's enough to (build) the strength because you are working more on strength than on mass."

For 63-year-old Caring Tabunar, toning muscle is only one reason to do tai chi. As an organizer of a group called Seniors in Motion, she helps run free tai chi classes for seniors.

"It gives them a confidence and inner peace," she said.

That could be why fellow Seniors in Motion organizer, 73-year-old Ciony Nueva, finds tai chi relaxing. She also sees other benefits from practising. "My co-ordination is improved," she said.

For both Nueva and Tabunar, tai chi is just one way to be active. With Seniors in Motion they also organize other free activities like aerobics for seniors in and around Montreal.

That fits well with Aubertin-Leheudre's advice for seniors:

"Be active, and you will be healthy."