Where ever you travel in the Far East you’re likely to see images similar to this. Groups of people gathered in open spaces going through what looks like a slow motion dance routine. Look even closer and you’ll probably see that most of the participants are ‘mature’ adults. What is this strange art they are practising and why is it so popular amongst the older generation?
The movements are from the ancient Chinese practise of Tai Chi Chuan, most often referred to simply as Tai Chi (‘tie-chee’). They consist of slow, fluid movements performed with concentration and focus, thus allowing practitioners to fully exercise the mind as well as the body. It is Tai Chi’s focus on mental health, physical fitness, and general well-being that make it such an excellent activity for seniors seeking to maintain functional fitness levels and a positive mental outlook.
Revitalising Stiff Joints
The low impact nature of the exercise makes it kind on the joints, a key benefit for seniors. I only fully appreciated this particular benefit of Tai Chi in my early fifties; after thirty years of teaching traditional Japanese martial arts my joints were suffering badly to say the least. Getting out of bed in the morning was not a pretty site as I gingerly coerced my stiff and sore joints slowly into life!
A drastic decision had to be made. I abandoned my former training in favour of Tai Chi, an art that I had dabbled with as a much younger man. Within a very short period of time my joints started to regain some of their former spring and suppleness and I have continued to maintain this improvement since.
One of the great things about Tai Chi is that it requires no specialist equipment and can be done in a minimal amount of space. Traditionally they say that Tai Chi can be practised in the space that an oxen would take up if it was lying down – about the same footprint as a three seater sofa or couch. These characteristics make this form of exercise especially accessible to seniors; they can learn the forms and transitions in a class and practise at home whenever they wish.
Tai Chi Practise – A Shared Activity
Although Tai Chi is essentially a solo exercise, we can see from the photographs that it is usually practised in a group setting. Learning Tai Chi therefore serves another really important function for many senior citizens – allowing people to socialise and bond together in a shared activity.
Because there is no sense of competition in Tai Chi, everyone develops their own way of doing the form and experiences the benefits of the art together. It is partly this sense that everyone’s Tai Chi is ‘right’ that allows a group to practise with a real sense of shared endeavour and harmony.
Socialising with peers in this way is well known to improve the quality of life for all ages, but becomes particularly important to older adults who may feel more lonely or isolated. We are holistic beings and our emotional health greatly impacts our physical body. Happy, fulfilled people of any age do tend to be healthier; whether we like it or not, our sense of happiness is closely linked to the strength of the relationships we have in our lives.
Tai Chi Improves Bone Density
Seniors who practise Tai Chi regularly gain strength, endurance and improve their balance. They also greatly reduce the risk of bone density loss.
Although low-impact, Tai Chi is still a weight bearing form of exercise as practitioners move with, against, and through their own body weight. Weight bearing exercises are well know to build and maintain bone density, something that is particularly important for seniors 65 years and older. As an aside, this can also be an important benefit of Tai Chi practise for women who are menopausal and at an increased risk of developing osteoporosis.
Keeping You on Your Feet
Beyond bone health, Tai Chi builds strength in the legs and lower body. It also strengthens the ankles and knees, which increases balance and stability in movement. This becomes of major importance as we get older and greatly reduces one of the problems of more advanced years, the increased risk of a serious fall.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA, one out of every three adults aged 65 or older experiences a fall in any given year. These falls can often lead to quite significant injuries in the elderly that include head traumas or broken bones, particularly broken hips.
The US Surgeon General’s Report on ‘Bone Health and Osteoporosis: What It Means to You’ states that elderly people who suffer a broken hip are four times more likely to die within the three months following the injury. Elderly people who recover from hip fractures often experience continued health complications for the remainder of their lives.
By way of illustration, my aged mother managed to break her hip twice within the space of a few years. Although she was fortunate and did recover, she still walks with quite a marked limp. Considering where she was after the second break, the fact that she walks at all is something of a minor miracle but the damage done in the fall definitely impacted the rest of her life.
If you are already wheelchair bound and think there is no way you could do Tai Chi at all then you may be surprised to know that it can even be done from a wheelchair in an modified form.
Additional Benefits of Tai Chi for Health
Unlike many other forms of exercise, Tai Chi does not deplete the energy reserves of the body but actively enlivens it with increased vitality. This remarkable art has been shown to have many positive benefits, including:
- Assisting sufferers of Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.
- Improves cardiovascular health by encouraging deep breathing.
- Lowering blood pressure.
- Help with pain relief from conditions like arthritis.
- Promote recovery following a heart attack or stroke.
In addition, has been shown to reduce risk of stroke in high-risk patients.
Tai Chi Benefits Stress
We have seen how Tai Chi can provide a simple, enjoyable, and accessible way to offset and prevent many of the health concerns faced by those of more senior years. The benefits of this ancient activity go way beyond the physical and can have huge mental advantages too.
Studies have shown Tai Chi actually improves brain power and memory. In one study, subjects who did Tai Chi were able to increase grey matter in the brain by as much as 40%! Could regular Tai Chi practise help prevent or slow that other scourge of old age, dementia?
The integration of mind and body during a Tai Chi session does seem to engender a general sense of mental well being in practitioners. This aspect of the practise also alleviates the symptoms of stress and improves general mental capability and concentration.
Tai Chi Benefits for Seniors? The Verdict.
Tai Chi is an ideal form of exercise for seniors. It is low-impact and regular practise carries with it multiple benefits, both physical and mental. Tai Chi promotes and allows you to retain high levels of functional fitness leading to a full and energised life well into your retirement years. It improves mobility, bone health, memory and brain power; all key elements that support your general well-being and energy and allow you to live life to the full
If 60 is the new 40 then 80 must be the new 60! The simple practise of Tai Chi can help make these extended golden years for us all an experience of great quality. It can, quite literally, add years to your life and life to your years.
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