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The Health Benefits of Tai Chi for Seniors

Posted by Chris Corrigall
on November 2, 2020
resident learning tai chi

You may have seen individuals or groups at the park moving in a slow, synchronized routine. They look so peaceful as they concentrate on a point in the distance. Their arms almost seem to float in space. They are practicing the ancient martial art of tai chi. The practice is typified by very slow, deliberate, repetitive, and low-impact movements—making this an ideal workout for seniors and those with limited mobility. Tai chi is based on relaxation and coordination. The National Association of Orthopedic Nurses even endorsed tai chi for seniors seeking to strengthen their muscles and increase their flexibility through this gentle aerobic exercise.

What is Tai Chi?

Dating back over 2,500 years from China, tai chi has become increasingly popular throughout the world. Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that descends from qigong, a discipline which involves the mind, breath, and motion to create a calm balance. Tai chi, often described as meditation in motion, is believed to clear your mind and reduce your stress through focused concentration on the movements.

Are There Different Styles of Tai Chi?

At first glance, you may not know there are five styles of tai chi. All types of tai chi are derived from the original Chen family style of the art. But today, five styles are commonly practiced. The differences can be found in the pace and rhythm of the movements, along with body posture.

1. Yang Style

The Yang style is considered the most popular, widely practiced, and most accessible. This style was developed by Yang Luchan, focusing on even, gentle, and large exaggerated movements to improve flexibility. Because of the gentle movement, this style is easy to adapt to one’s physical capability. This style’s infinite adaptability makes it suitable for young children, adults of any age, beginners, and those with limited mobility or recovering from an injury. Yang style is a great low-impact workout for seniors.

2. Chen Style

The Chen style is considered the oldest of all five styles. The style alternates between fast and slow movements. It’s known for explosive movements that include stomping, kicking, and some jumping. The foundation of this style includes spiral movements that flow from the feet to the hands, called silk reeling. Because the Chen style combines slow movements with quick, forceful changes, this style provides a good cardio workout. It is a great workout to build leg strength and stretch tight muscles. It requires more physical conditioning and athleticism, making it appealing to martial artists and younger practitioners. But this style is not suggested for the elderly or those with back or knee issues.

3. Wu/Hao Style

Some refer to this style as the “first” Wu style. It’s the result of combining both the Yang and Chen styles. Even in China, this style is practiced by few. It’s considered a more advanced style. The routines are done in smaller frames with a high posture and slow and smooth movements. The strong emphasis is on chi, your internal force, and controlling movements. Therefore, it is not recommended for beginners.

4. Wu Style

Considered the “second” Wu style, it is the second most popular style practiced. The main differences are the hand forms, pushing hands, and weapons training. In the four other styles of tai chi, the body remains centered. But unique to Wu style is the emphasis on extending the body both forward and backward and the back leg serves as a counterbalance. This style is recommended for beginners.

5. Sun Style

The Sun style is the gentlest of all styles, excluding the other styles’ more rigorous movements. Mimicking a graceful dance, this style incorporates footwork with fluid, circular hand movement. Without crouching, jumping, or stomping, it’s the most suitable for both seniors and physical therapy because it is easier on the joints with a high stance.

How Can Tai Chi Benefit Older Adults?

There are many great benefits of tai chi for seniors. Research has found that seniors who regularly practice tai chi enjoy benefits such as:

  • Improved balance
  • Decreased risk of high blood pressure
  • Improved physical strength
  • Improved hand-eye coordination
  • Increased blood circulation
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Improved cognitive function and memory
  • Reduced depression and anxiety

The biggest benefit to many isn’t only physical—but emotional. Many seniors are unsteady on their feet and have an extreme fear of falling. Ironically, the most significant predictor of a fall is the fear of falling. This fear can be stressful and deter them from taking part in activities. Tai chi can make them feel stronger and more stable—taking away that fear and adding to their personal sense of well-being.

Can people living with dementia benefit from Tai Chi?  

Any type of movement that gets seniors off the couch and moving can be of a great benefit both physically and emotionally. Movements may need to be adapted, and some moves can be made while seated, but there is no reason not to encourage your loved one with dementia to try tai chi. And some studies suggest physical exercise can help to delay the advances of dementia. As with any change in physical activity, first discuss this with their physician.

Is Tai Chi Safe for Seniors?

Tai chi is a wonderful exercise choice for seniors because the slow and steady movements are low-impact and can easily be adapted. Many seniors tend to fall into the trap of believing they are too old or out of shape to learn something new. This simply isn’t true. With some patience, a good instructor, and a suitable style for their age and stamina, they can incorporate a daily practice into their lifestyle to improve their health—both mentally and physically.

Here are a few suggestions to keep a senior safe when beginning to learn tai chi:

Consult with a Doctor: As with any new fitness routine, we suggest that your loved one consults with their physician. Although this form of exercise is very accessible, it’s best to get the go-ahead from a doctor or medical professional.

Inform the Instructor: Encourage your loved one to share with their instructor that they are taking their first class or are a beginner. When starting to learn, discuss any physical concerns with the instructor. The reason why tai chi is an ideal exercise choice for seniors is the adaptability. The instructor can easily modify movements to fit their needs or physical limitations. Chair tai chi is popular with many seniors because it can be done seated for those who may not be steady on their feet.

Be Mindful: Most tai chi classes will start with a warmup to loosen joints and warm muscles. As a senior, warming up is a crucial step that should not be skipped. If your loved one feels dizzy or faint during a class, they should stop immediately. If the feeling persists, check with their doctor.

Be Safe: We suggest seniors should wear comfortable, proper-fitting shoes and loose, stretchy clothing for their workout. To protect joints and prevent potential injury, do not practice tai chi on wet grass, a loose rug, or unstable footing. Practice on a padded, stable surface, such as a carpet or even seated in a chair.

Don’t Overexert: Seniors need to be mindful of moving comfortably within their range of motion and not overextending or pushing too far. Encourage them to take breaks when needed. With regular practice, they will gain strength and stamina. Pushing oneself is not worth an injury.

Where to Learn?

The best thing about tai chi is there is no special equipment. A skilled teacher can easily adapt movements to fit every age and fitness level. A group class is an excellent way for seniors to socialize with others and to keep motivated as a beginner. Find a local senior center, YMCA, assisted living community, or gym that offers senior classes. Due to closures or restrictions during the pandemic, consider checking out online classes or videos to learn the moves and establish a routine. Also, check if group classes are offered outdoors with proper social distancing as a safe possibility. When reviewing options, select an appropriate class for the practitioner’s age, flexibly, and stamina.

At Aegis Living, we believe that physical activity is an important part of healthy aging. We offer many chair tai chi and other daily exercise classes that are safe for our residents. To learn more about our activities program for yourself, contact your local Aegis Living community.

Profile image of Chris Corrigall

Chris Corrigall

Vice President of Life Enrichment

Chris began his career as an elementary school teacher, learning the importance of engagement. He pivoted to the number one luxury cruise line in the world, rising from manager to vice president of entertainment. In 2017 he became a Certified Dementia Trainer to better support Aegis’ residents living with dementia.

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