Imagine if there were a low-cost or even no-cost way to improve your heart health, joint stability, bone density, and even your mental sharpness and mood with simple non-strenuous exercises lasting about an hour or less. According to the Harvard Medical School, there is such a thing. It’s called tai chi, and it is described as being safe, accessible and enjoyable for older adults. In addition to the benefits just listed, it is also said to be one of the most effective approaches to preventing falls in the elderly — one of the most prevalent and dangerous risks in that age group.
Although tai chi, an ancient practice with roots in Chinese martial arts, has become widely known, research indicates only about 1% of Americans are taking advantage of its benefits. Among those benefits, Harvard lists the following:
Balance. Harvard calls this benefit “the best-documented in medical literature,” and says studies show that older adults who do hour-long tai chi sessions one to three times a week are 43% less likely to fall, and they cut their overall risk of injury by half.
Pain relief. Especially pain in back and neck and pain due to arthritis and fibromyalgia.
Mental sharpness. Tai chi can reduce age-related cognitive decline and may slow dementia.
Mood improvement. In 82% of studies, tai chi was shown to improve mood, lower anxiety, and effectively treat certain symptoms of depression. It is a good stress management practice.
Build confidence. By strengthening muscles and engaging in mind control.
Heart health. Harvard says tai chi “lowers blood pressure and total cholesterol, reduces chronic inflammation, and tones the sympathetic nervous system.” Especially for people who are out of shape, this may be better than more traditional aerobic exercises.
Stanwood Chang, a tai chi instructor at the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, said he has seen people improve their balance and stability and pick up their pace in walking speed and endurance after only several weeks of practicing tai chi.
The Basics of Tai Chi
Tai chi uses slow, flowing body motions in which your weight is shifted back and forth, such as from one leg to the other. It’s been likened to a graceful dance. This is accompanied by deep, slow breathing. Taken together, these steps produce a meditative quality that can trigger what’s called the “relaxation response,” which studies have shown produces a physiological change that helps lower blood pressure and heart rate, breathing rate, oxygen consumption, adrenaline levels, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
But Chang says “by far the greatest benefit for older adults is a reduction in falls,” because tai chi combines the physical demands needed to stay upright — such as leg strength, flexibility, range of motion, and reflexes — all of which tend to decline with age. Chang adds that tai chi’s slow deliberate footwork also makes the practitioner more aware of ankle angle and weight distribution. He says it’s like “practicing tightrope walking on the ground. You’re practicing your balance and you’re teaching your body to be more sensitive and have greater strength.” These are all factors that reduce fall risks.
A Bit of Tai Chi History and Philosophy
Legend holds that tai chi began as a Chinese martial art technique thousands of years ago. It is rooted in multiple Asian traditions, including traditional Chinese philosophy and medicine that looks at mind-body connection. Its two central concepts are yin and yang, the opposing yet complementary forces, and also qi, known as vital energy. “When your qi flows freely,” Harvard explains, “you are balanced and healthy. Tai chi promotes the flow of qi.”
For Coloradans Interested in Tai Chi
Harvard recommends that anyone interested in trying tai chi might do best to begin with a class at a senior center, health club, YMCA, or community center. Where fees are charged, these typically range from $10 to $20 per hour. Classes generally last about an hour. Tai chi programs are available throughout Colorado. In addition to the suggestions just given about where to look for classes, you can also check with your local Area Agency on Aging (AAA), which may have information on tai chi classes. Colorado AAAs are AgeWise Colorado Providers and can be found at https://agewisecolorado.org/senior-resources-colorado/?_services_community=area-agencies-on-aging. Or if you simply do an online search on “tai chi in Colorado,” you will see where many tai chi programs can be found.
If and when you find that tai chi is right for you, you can continue with formal classes or you may choose to continue practicing it on your own almost anywhere, indoors or out. You don’t need any special equipment or hours spent at a gm for tai chi.
Harvard’s Chang adds that it’s wise to pace yourself and not overdo it with tai chi. “It’s not the Western idea of ‘push yourself 110%,’” he says. Rather the philosophy is “relax and be comfortable.”