By Meredith Kimple
We all understand the importance of exercise when it comes to maintaining our health, but engaging in beneficial physical activity can become more daunting and difficult as we age. Alternative, gentler forms of exercise, like dancing or swimming, can still be taxing on an older body. Many physical activities hurt more than they help, and instead of building or maintaining a senior’s endurance, they exhaust, strain, and weaken their bodies.
Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese exercise that evolved from martial arts, may offer us a method by which balance and strength can be fortified without fatigue.
Over last few decades the popularity of mind-body exercises like Tai Chi and yoga has increased dramatically, and among a variety of age groups. These physical activities are not about raising heart rate, breaking a sweat, or meeting specific time goals; while you will improve your flexibility and balance by participating in these exercises, the aim is to look inward and get in tune with your own body.
Tai Chi in particular is an excellent option for seniors who, for any number of reasons, find exercising difficult. There are many different types of Tai Chi, but most are performed by moving slowly through a series of poses while engaging in deep breathing. Spatial perception becomes impaired with age, making it more difficult for seniors to keep their balance while moving and increasing their anxiety about falling. Tai Chi as a practice emphasizes the individual in relation to the space around them, which fosters greater awareness of one’s body and movements in day-to-day life. Beyond merely strengthening their physical stability, participating in Tai Chi can help restore confidence in their bodies, thereby assuaging their fear of falling.
Research has shown that Tai Chi, though movement-oriented, is also gentle on the joints. In fact, the motions employed in Tai Chi are similar to physician-prescribed exercises to help manage arthritis. The poses are made through fluid, purposeful movements that are not physically taxing on the body and which are meant to relax the participant. When performing Tai Chi the muscles are not tense, and throughout the exercise deep, even breathing is used to focus the body and mind.
There is evidence that Tai Chi reduces stress levels and blood pressure, improves strength, and can make recovery from falls and cardiovascular events easier. But more importantly, it seems to offer a safe, rewarding way for seniors to become reacquainted with their physicality. Aging is an emotionally difficult and physically draining process that we all undergo, and the change in our abilities can be very disheartening. Suddenly running up a flight of stairs is no longer possible. Stepping off the curb becomes a nasty fall. Our backs refuse to let us engage in our preferred physical activity. We are forced to be more cautious in order to navigate a less accessible world.
Practicing Tai Chi can help seniors feel more at home in bodies that are constantly changing. It can restore confidence and inspire self-love. Yes, we won’t always be able to run five miles or hike a mountain trail or bike across town. But our bodies are still amazing, still valid, and still capable of remarkable feats of strength. We just have to approach them differently, and Tai Chi is a wonderful way to foster a deeper awareness of your own body.
Many senior centers offer Tai Chi classes, and while there are YouTube videos and DVDs available for practicing in your own home, you should learn the basics with a certified instructor. This way you can be sure that you are performing the movements correctly and not straining your body. If you or a senior loved one are unable to stand, Tai Chi has been and can be adapted to a sitting position. If you have a pre-existing medical condition you should consult with your physician to make sure that you are well enough to engage in Tai Chi exercises.
If you’re interested in Tai Chi and want to know what it looks like in practice, this video shows a certified instructor leading classes!