We face a variety of age-related health issues as we grow older. Stiff, sore joints, arthritis or injury limit our mobility, making it more difficult to participate in activities we enjoy. The more painful movement becomes, the less likely we are to exercise, compounding the problem.
However, we needn’t be resigned to this eventuality. Proactive lifestyle changes can greatly improve our mobility and prevent serious falls—another grave health issue which plagues the elderly. A growing number of older adults all over North America are turning to tai chi to combat health issues related to aging. Let’s explore five reasons tai chi is ideal for seniors who want a healthier, more active lifestyle.
Tai Chi—a Low Impact Workout Ideal for Older Adults
The soft tissue around our joints deteriorates over time. This makes it increasingly difficult to perform high impact exercises which require running or jumping—like jogging or tennis—without nagging joint pain. Conversely, tai chi offers an ideal option for increasing our fitness level without aggravating aching joints.
Tai chi is a low-impact exercise. The deliberate, synchronized movements of this internal martial art minimize the risk of injury. It is easily adapted to your current fitness level, even if you have a physical condition or are recovering from an injury.
It’s never too late to begin a tai chi practice. The graceful, gentle movements of the yang style are ideal for older adults with limited mobility. Unlike sports in which our abilities diminish with age, tai chi allows us to continually improve and excel. This gives seniors a sense of accomplishment and pride.
No special equipment or attire is required. All you need is comfortable clothing and shoes, or you can practice barefoot. Check with your doctor first if you have musculoskeletal conditions or take medication that might make you dizzy or lightheaded.
Tai Chi Improves Posture
Poor posture is often the result of poor biomechanics (incorrect positioning of the body during everyday activities). For instance, when we spend the majority of our day seated at a computer with our shoulders slumped and our spine curved, the spine becomes compressed. The neck is strained. The shoulders and back muscles overextend. Muscles which support the spine become overstretched; others diminish from underuse. This causes low back pain and stiff, aching hip and knee joints. However, tai chi can correct bad posture habits and improve body mechanics.
Proper posture is a foundational principle of tai chi. The movements of tai chi cannot be performed correctly without proper alignment of the spine. Therefore, we focus on achieving and maintaining proper posture. It becomes second nature. We subconsciously make small adjustments to the posture throughout the day.
As we stretch and straighten the spine with tai chi, we combat the tendency to slouch or hunch as we age. With a greater awareness of our posture, we stand with the hips aligned with the heels. The head lifts, aligning vertically with the spine. The chest relaxes as the shoulder blades separate. As a result, we experience improved posture when we stand, walk, sit or sleep.
Tai Chi Improves Balance and Helps Prevent Falls
As we age, our eyesight diminishes, muscles weaken, joints stiffen and we lose our sense of balance, increasing the likeliness of a fall. Each year, 20-30% of the senior population in Canada experiences a fall. For some, a fall is fatal. For most, it reduces their quality of life and shortens life expectancy. Though falling is more likely as we age, it needn’t be a forgone conclusion. Simple modifications of our environment can eliminate tripping hazards. However, staying fit is the best deterrence against falls.
Mounting research has proven tai chi’s ability to increase balance, mobility and confidence—all of which are critical to fall prevention among the elderly. According to one medical study, after a group of older adults practiced tai chi for six months, they experienced a 55% reduction in falls.
Tai chi improves balance by strengthening core and leg muscles, stabilizing joints, heightening reflexes and increasing flexibility. This increases our ability to recover from a stumble. Continued tai chi practice boosts mobility confidence—making us less fearful of falling. This is essential. As we age, proprioception—our ability to sense where our bodies are in space—diminishes. Additionally, experiencing a fall or stumble makes us more fearful of falling. The more fearful we are of falling, the more likely that we will fall. Tai chi builds strength and stability in the muscles and joints and enables us to move more confidently, making it a powerful defence against falls in older adults.
Tai Chi is Good “Medicine” for Your Health
Tai chi can be a powerful ally in the management or prevention of various ailments. A review of studies originating in thirteen different countries, involving more than 6400 individuals adds to the growing body of evidence which substantiates the health benefits of qigong or tai chi.
- Bone loss was lessened and the incidence of bone fractures was reduced in menopausal women.
- Patients with severe knee osteoarthritis experienced a reduction in pain and improved mobility.
- Participants saw a significant reduction in blood pressure.
- Stress, anxiety and depression were eased.
- The immune system was boosted.
- Another study demonstrated that tai chi improves balance and motor control in Parkinson’s patients—something we have observed in our students who have Parkinson’s.
- A randomized, controlled trial demonstrated that a consistent tai chi practice increases brain volume, improves memory and may help delay the onset of dementia in the elderly.
The benefits older adults derive from tai chi aren’t limited to improving physical and mental health. Tai chi allows seniors to enjoy a better quality of life through increased social interaction.
The Social Benefits of Tai Chi for Older Adults
Spending time with family and friends fosters emotional well-being. However, seniors with limited mobility are hesitant to leave the safety of their homes. Such fears can have a devastating effect on their social lives.
Enrollment in tai chi classes requires seniors to venture out and connect with others. Tai chi is a fun, healthy group activity, suitable for all ages. Many grandparents practice tai chi alongside their children or grandchildren.
Increased mobility and balance gives elderly tai chi practitioners the confidence to get out—shopping and visiting family and friends. It also enables them to live independently longer.
Tai chi offers a host of benefits for older adults. It’s a low-impact exercise ideal for seniors with limited mobility or recovering from injury. Tai chi corrects poor posture habits. It strengthens muscles, stabilizes joints, increases balance and boosts mobility confidence, reducing the likelihood of falls. A growing body of research has demonstrated tai chi’s effectiveness in lowering blood pressure, alleviating arthritis, easing anxiety and depression, delaying the onset of dementia and alleviating Parkinson’s symptoms. Seniors who routinely practice tai chi are active and social, enjoying a higher quality of life.
Nervous about giving tai chi a try? Observe a class. Afraid you won’t know anyone? Enroll with a friend or family member. Still not sure tai chi is right for you? Sign up for an Open House class or package and discover the incredible physical, mental and social benefits of tai chi.