These days when you enter the activities area of a senior living community or senior center, you are less likely to encounter a bingo game in progress and more likely to see participants gracefully assuming poses while exhaling slowly. This practice—tai chi—has become very popular as part of seniors’ exercise routines these days. Is there scientific proof that this ancient practice really provides health benefits?
Over the past few years, tai chi has been at the top of the list of “alternative therapies” with benefits that have been proven with valid research. Universities and health institutions have found that tai chi helps senior improve their balance, mood and joint health. It has become part of the fall protection strategy for many older adults.
What is tai chi?
Tai chi (sometimes called “qi gong” or “tai chi chuan”) is a body awareness practice which originated in China as a martial art. It is sometimes called “moving meditation,” as the goal is to increase awareness of one’s body in space. Traditionally, tai chi practitioners speak of the concepts of yin andyang and a life force called qi, but whatever your beliefs, the actual physical practice of tai chi can be a good part of a fitness routine.
During a tai chi session, participants engage in slow, flowing movements while breathing deeply. They assume a series of postures that may remind you of yoga. The goal is to concentrate and to put aside distracting thoughts, to achieve a balance between relaxation and focus.
Tai chi is often practiced in groups, but once trained, people can also do it alone. Many practitioners enjoy a morning tai chi session in a park or other outdoor place when the weather is nice.
What are the benefits?
Tai chi is a great exercise for seniors. It is gentle on the joints, requires no equipment, and can be performed at home or in a free or inexpensive class. After their tai chi session, many seniors report feeling a spiritual lift that improves mood and allows for a sense of well-being for the rest of the day. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) says that the 2.3 million Americans who currently practice tai chi report improved sleep, conditioning and overall wellness. Tai chi has been found to be beneficial for people who are suffering from a number of age-related health challenges:
Falls. Tai chi is more and more being used in fall prevention programs. According to The American College of Rheumatology, tai chi can improve posture, balance, proprioception (the sense of position) and coordination. The American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation pointed out that tai chi reduces fall risk by decreasing the fear of falling through increased self-confidence. And Tufts-New England Medical Center physician Dr. Chenchen Wang reported that “long-term tai chi had favorable effects on the promotion of balance control, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness and reduced the risk of falls in the elderly. Benefit was also found for balance, strength and flexibility in older subjects; and pain, stress and anxiety in healthy subjects.”
Arthritis. In another study, Wang and her colleagues found that osteoarthritis patients who engaged in regular tai chi sessions experienced improved physical function and decreased pain. Wang explained that the physical components of tai chi are consistent with exercise recommendations for arthritis, which include range of motion, muscle conditioning and aerobic workout. The mental components of tai chi improve the perception of pain by promoting a sense of well-being, triggering the release of endorphins, the body’s own pain relievers.
Depression. Researchers from the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences confirmed that tai chi can be effective in fighting depression in older adults. UCLA professor-in-residence Helen Lavretsky stated, “Adding a mind-body exercise like tai chi that is widely available in the community can improve the outcomes of treating depression in older adults, who may also have other, coexisting medical conditions or cognitive impairment.” And for some seniors, tai chi might offer benefits to rival prescription antidepressant drugs, which can cause negative side effects or undesirable interactions with the other medicines a senior takes. Says Lavretsky, “With tai chi, we may be able to treat these conditions without exposing patients to additional medications.”
Studies also show tai chi can be beneficial for people with Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and stroke. A 2014 study even showed that tai chi benefits us on the cellular level, which could slow the aging process in general.
Is tai chi safe?
Tai chi is considered to be generally safe. The National Institute on Aging encourages seniors to tell their healthcare provider about any complementary and alternative practices they use. People with osteoporosis, joint problems, hernia, injuries or other medical conditions should talk to their healthcare provider before starting tai chi. It may be best to begin with the help of an instructor to be certain of performing the movements correctly. As with any exercise program, overdoing it can lead to sore muscles afterwards. Avoidance of certain postures, or using modified postures, may be recommended.