Tai chi, a form of Chinese martial arts that focuses on slow, controlled movements. It’s low impact and gives people with limited mobility a chance to improve their balance, range of motion and coordination. Research shows that tai chi for seniors can reduce the incidence of falls in elderly and at-risk adults by about 43 percent. With fewer than 34 percent of aging adults getting enough exercise , it’s important for caregivers, older individuals and people who work with seniors to know about this gentle but effective activity.
What Is Tai Chi?
Tai chi is an ancient way of moving that is practiced by more than 200 million people across the globe. Unlike many forms of exercise that focus on strengthening your muscles, improving your endurance or boosting your flexibility, this activity allows you to work with your qi, or life force.
The idea behind it is that when you’re feeling slow, sluggish and fatigued, your chi is low. With an abundance of chi, you feel alert and vibrant.
Every movement helps develop energy flow. For example, the tai chi prayer wheel is a cornerstone move that can rejuvenate you and renew your energy whenever you’re feeling stressed, anxious or tense.
The practice is considered to be a perfect exercise. It is associated with a low rate of injury and has a wide range of medical benefits , including:
- Balance control
- Improved fitness
- Better aerobic capacity
- Stronger muscles
- Increased energy
- Reduced inflammation
- Improved mood
- Less depression and anxiety
- Better sleep quality
- Improved immunity
- Weight loss benefits
Tai chi has even been linked to increased longevity . In one study that looked at the exercise habits of more than 61,000 men in China, researchers found that it is relatively equivalent to walking and jogging for reducing mortality rates.
The history of tai chi is steeped in mystery. It was developed between 700 and 1500 years ago as a Chinese fighting art. The Taoist monk Zhang San Feng is credited with creating the practice.
Some people confuse tai chi with qi gong. Both involve energy work and slow, graceful motions. People who practice both types of exercise focus on energy flow within their bodies. However, qi gong involves more varied moves than tai chi. It also focuses on directing certain energy flows, whereas tai chi works on the energetic body as a whole.
So how do you practice? It involves moving fluidly through a series of positions. As in yoga, you must be mindful of your breath when practicing. As you move, you concentrate on inhaling into your belly, which is the center of your qi. The practice can create a better mind-body connection and help you become more present in your surroundings.
How Does Tai Chi Benefit The Elderly?
Although anyone can practice, it may be especially beneficial for older adults. Tai chi for seniors can be practiced in a chair, bed or wheelchair. Limited mobility or back pain is not a problem when performing tai chi exercises for seniors. Also, it has been found to improve medical conditions that often affect aging adults.
It Improves Stability In People With Parkinson’s Disease
One study looked at the ways in which tai chi balance exercises for seniors could improve postural stability in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Physical activity has been proven to help slow the deterioration of motor functions in these individuals. It also helps prolong independence.
However, many exercises geared toward people with Parkinson’s require equipment and safety monitoring. Seniors don’t always have access to gyms or trainers.
It was found to improve postural stability in patients with Parkinson’s disease because it encourages the type of rhythmic weight shifting that happens when you stand and walk. It also emphasizes making controlled motions when the center of gravity is displaced.
It Can Reduce Chronic Pain
Harvard Medical School researchers discovered that the traditional Chinese exercise is also beneficial for people with chronic heart failure. After a 12-week program, participants in the study reported having a better quality of life and experiencing better sleep.
Tai chi can also help with pain, which can affect up to 85 percent of seniors, according to NIH Medline Plus . A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the exercise might be useful in treating fibromyalgia. Participants who practiced an hour twice a week for 12 weeks experienced more improvements in symptoms compared with people who were involved in wellness education and stretching.
Harvard Medical School reports that it can help relieve pain in people with arthritis, tension headaches and other chronic diseases. In a 2015 analysis , researchers looked at the practice’s effects on quality of life for adults in their 60s and 70s. All of the participants in the studies had at least one chronic disease, including cancer, osteoarthritis, heart failure or COPD. On average, the individuals who performed the movements showed improvements in gait, muscle strength and quality of life.
It Helps Treat People With Diabetes And Metabolic Syndrome
Tai chi can even help people control their type 2 diabetes. Medical News Today cites two studies that were published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The researchers found that it lowers blood glucose levels and improves immune system response in people with this type of diabetes.
In addition to lowering inflammation and boosting the immune system, it was found was found to raise fitness levels and general feelings of well-being. Participants said that they slept better, had less pain, experienced an increase in energy levels and had fewer food cravings while participating in a tai chi program.
It Helps Prevent Falls
The National Council on Aging explains that falls are the leading cause of injury in seniors. Falling can affect an individual’s independence, making them reliant on a wheelchair or other people for assistance. It can also produce fatal injuries.
Twenty-five percent of Americans ages 65 and older fall every year. A senior citizen dies from a fall-related injury every 19 minutes.
Many seniors avoid activities that improve their wellness and quality of life because they’re afraid of falling. The less they move around, the more their risk of falling increases. In addition to damaging their physical well-being, this activity restriction can also lead to isolation, depression, and feelings of helplessness.
Tai chi is an integrative approach that can help older adults improve their balance and stamina while boosting their mood. Harvard Medical School says that an hour of intense movements brings about similar aerobic benefits as taking a brisk walk. Plus, performing the slow motions can improve a senior’s confidence more than hitting the sidewalk and venturing away from home.
Some researchers have found that the practice is just as effective for building muscle as more forceful types of weight training. Again, aging adults may be more likely to try something new if it is easy to do and doesn’t involve vigorous activity.
The movements improve stability because it requires practitioners to concentrate on all of the physical components that tend to decline as they get older. While performing the positions, you build leg strength, improve range of motion, work on flexibility and keep your reflexes sharp. These are all factors that can contribute to falls.
Surprisingly, the emotional impact of tai chi on falls cannot be overlooked. Fear of falling is one of the greatest predictors of a tumble. It helps reduce that anxiety by making you more comfortable on your feet.
It Is A Low Impact Exercise
Unlike many other forms of exercise, including walking, the exercise is considered to have zero impact on joints and bones. It’s one of the safest ways to get moving while avoiding injury. You can start the practice at any fitness level. You can also choose to work your way up to more intense motions if you become stronger and more mobile.
Easy Exercise Videos For Seniors
Tai chi for seniors is not difficult to learn. You don’t need to know a special language, follow certain steps or have specific equipment. Simply wear comfortable clothing and turn on a video to learn some moves.
Before you begin a routine, you should learn to focus on your breath. Even if you don’t incorporate any physical actions into your practice, learning how to inhale and exhale properly can provide benefits.
Your breath provides a mind-body connection. It’s also calming. The breath may be the most important aspect of the activity.
You may find it hard to coordinate the breath with the motions at first. That’s normal. You can get more practice by practicing this regularly throughout the day whether you’re doing the exercises or not.
Picture your breath to move as a continuous circle into your body and out of your body. One of the most important aspects of tai chi breathing is to focus on inhaling into your belly while relaxing your muscles. The more you practice, the more natural this type of deep breathing will become.
Warmup In Chair
This warmup can be done while seated, which makes it ideal for people with limited mobility. It’s a gentle way to strengthen and loosen up the body if you have an injury or issues with stability or pain.
The exercises emphasize the muscles of the upper body and abdomen. However, the lower body is not neglected. Some leg extensions and ankle exercises are incorporated in this sitting warmup video.
The instructor talks you through each movement. If you have trouble hearing the directions, you can follow along with what you see on the screen. Each sequence is repeated several times, making it easy to mimic.
Movements For Arthritis
This sit-down tai chi for arthritis program was first developed in 1996. Over the years, people who aren’t able to do standing movements have been able to benefit from this type of sequence. It has been taught to people who have suffered from strokes, multiple sclerosis, heart problems and lung conditions.
Dr. Paul Lam explains that these easy exercises can even be practiced on an airplane.
You’ll learn how to do the wave motion with proper form. Dr. Lam tells you what parts of the body to focus on as you do the hand positions. This involves some less obvious positions, including putting pressure on a specific foot and concentrating on pulling in your knee.
8-Minute Daily Practice
These easy tai chi moves are taught from a standing position. They’re simple for beginners to learn.
If you practice every day, you’ll improve your balance and posture. You should start feeling fewer aches and pains if you do these over time.
The instructor tells you exactly what to do with your hands and feet as he shows you the moves. He even explains how many repetitions of each action you might want to do.
The moves included in this video include:
- Calming the waters
- Push water to the side
- Ball to the valley
- Push and pull
Gentle Tai Chi and Qi Gong LEAP Service
If you want to perform a longer exercise program, try this 22-minute routine. You’ll learn some gentle moves that you can do while standing or sitting. The instructors will show you how to adapt the positions for different levels.
They also explain how to adjust the moves if you have limited mobility. You’ll see how to use a large or narrow range of motion. The instructors also remind you to check in with your body frequently so that you’re always performing moves that feel comfortable and safe.
You’ll begin by inhaling and exhaling as you relax obvious areas of tension. You can always come back to this basic posture if you need to rest during the sequence.
What Is The 70% Rule?
When we strive to do anything in life, we’re often told to “give it our all” or “put in 100%.” We get used to doing that, and it puts us at greater risk for injury when it comes to exercise.
Tai chi is rooted in the Taoist tradition. Part of the philosophy involves the 70-percent rule. This says that an individual should not perform at more than 70 percent of his or her capacity.
That doesn’t mean that you should sit back and do the moves in an unfocused manner. You can put in your full concentration and determination.
However, don’t push your body to its limits. This not only strains your muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments but also puts mental pressure on you. In tai chi, your mental state is just as important as your physical moves. If you shut down because you feel tense or overexerted, you won’t be able to do the practice effectively.
The 70-percent rule applies to every aspect of the practice. To follow it, think about how much you can do. For example, perhaps a move requires you to bend all the way to the floor, and you’re capable of doing so. You should still only bend 70 percent of the way down so that you can work on developing the position properly.
The rule pertains to the length of time for which you practice too. If you know that you can do an hour-long routine, you should practice the 70-percent rule by only doing tai chi for 45 minutes.
Can Tai Chi Be Used As A Treatment For Anything?
Tai chi is part of traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM. TCM practitioners use mind and body practices, such as tai chi, to prevent and treat physical and mental problems. Therefore, you might wonder if you can use tai chi to treat any medical conditions.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health , it is a complementary approach for treating many conditions. Because it’s cost effective and generally considered to be safe, it doesn’t hurt to try it for conditions such as:
- Lower back pain
- Parkinson’s disease
- Pain management
- Menopausal symptoms
- Heart failure
- Type 2 diabetes
Much of the research that has been conducted on tai chi for treating medical conditions is in its infancy. Therefore, some of its claims for alleviating certain problems aren’t substantiated. Still, the physical and psychological benefits are so numerous that you can use the practice to indirectly improve your well-being even if it doesn’t treat a specific disease.
Tai Chi Classes For Seniors
Many gyms, community centers and senior centers offer tai chi classes. A group class can keep you motivated and hold you accountable for creating consistency with your practice. With other people around, you will also have help if you do fall or injure yourself. An in-person instructor can also correct your form as you do the moves.
If you decide to take tai chi classes for seniors, you might wonder what to expect. If you have never taken any online classes or watched any videos, you may not know the moves. Make sure that you tell the teacher that it’s your first class.
You should also ask the instructor whether it’s appropriate to ask questions during the class or save them for later. You might even want to observe a few classes and jot down your questions to ask the instructor before you attend your first class as a participant.
You might feel like you’re not keeping up with the other students, but there is no set endpoint. Tai chi is a journey, and you’ll always have more to learn. If you go in with an open mind, you won’t feel pressure to perform perfectly. Be patient with yourself, and remember that the more you practice, the easier the moves will become.
Tips And Strategies
Because many people have never performed tai chi, they might be hesitant to learn the moves. These tips for seniors will help you get started.
It’s Never Too Late To Learn
More than half of the people who practice tai chi begin after age 50. Don’t avoid learning because you feel like you’re too old or out of shape.
Learn From Others
If you can take an in-person class, you can establish a rapport with your peers and learn how others adapt the moves to work for their fitness and mobility levels. If you can’t attend a class, you can learn something new from every online instructor or YouTube video that you watch.
Work It Into Your Daily Life
Some experts say that about 30 percent of seniors might deal with anxiety on a regular basis. Incorporating tai chi into everything you do can help you manage stress.
Set an alarm to remind you to do mindful breathing every few hours throughout the day. Work the 70-percent rule into everything that you do.
When you structure your day based on tai chi principles, you may live in a state of relaxation instead of tension. For example, you can apply the 70-percent rule to every aspect of your life. It can help you prevent injury when doing other physical tasks. This rule can also help you stay calm when you’re presented with a problem that you would normally obsess over until you wore yourself out.
It can be hard to develop new habits when you’re older. Try to set aside a specific time each day to practice.
If you can only do 5 minutes at a time, that’s fine. In fact, you should probably start with 3 minutes in that case so that you stick with the 70-percent rule. Once you feel like the short practice is part of your routine, you can begin to lengthen it if that’s a goal.
Don’t Learn Everything At Once
You don’t have to know a lot of moves to benefit from tai chi. Trying to remember new postures can be challenging for a senior. Even just learning one new move a month can add to your practice in a way that’s not overwhelming.
Stevie is Certified Nutrition Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer for the past 10 years. He specializes in mobility and chronic pain management. His methods have helped thousands of clients improve the quality of their life through movement.