As the body ages it loses flexibility and muscle tone, and seniors often suffer from decreased mobility and an increased likelihood of falling. A new study suggests an ancient martial art can help keep seniors flexible and confident. A Journal of Advanced Nursing report suggests seniors practicing Tai Chi see improvement in their mobility, balance, and muscle tone.
Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese series of poses, known as forms, which are linked together in a continuous fashion to form a set. In action Tai Chi looks like a line-dance performed underwater. According to Rick Seemann, a Tai Chi instructor for the Taoist Tai Chi Society, the art was originally practiced by Taoist monks as part of their religion. Over the years the art form was seen to have both martial arts and health applications.
Over the past twenty years Western cultures have discovered the benefits of Tai Chi, and several studies have shown regular practice of the Tai Chi form lowers blood pressure, improves balance and muscle tone, and increases bone density. A Korean study published in the June issue of the Journal of Advanced Nursing shows these same benefits are experienced by seniors who performed the Tai Chi form three times a week for twelve weeks.
Eighty-three year old Bob Webster has been practicing Tai Chi for two years at the Blendon Senior Center in Northeast Columbus with the Taoist Tai Chi Society.
He says, "I enjoy it, because I think it's a good exercise for seniors: it's slow, it takes some concentration, it takes self discipline, and it's good for the balance, I've noticed that, so I feel that's it's been very beneficial."
Webster is the oldest in the class meeting at the Blendon Senior Center, but the majority are over sixty. They spend an hour warming up, running through the entire Taoist Tai Chi form, practicing individual parts of the form, and chatting. Within the group of almost twenty all can touch their toes, squat, and perform the complex foot work of the form.
Seventy-six year old Don Farrow has been doing Tai Chi for five years.
He says, "I have two hip replacements. I've had a small stroke, and so this is helping my balance tremendously. Also, I can do things with my hips that other people have told me that they can't do. So, it's really made a huge difference. Besides, it's a lot of fun."
Others in the class suffer from high blood pressure, arthritis, and diabetes. Some have had heart surgery. They all say Tai Chi has improved their health.
Tai Chi is a low to medium impact exercise. The participant can decide how strenuous to make the exercise by how much they bend their knees. The leg work develops muscle tone, while the forms themselves stretch tendons, loosen joints, and promote blood flow. The turning motions massage internal organs and allow the spine to twist and loosen, which promotes better posture.
All of this takes time, though, and several months of steady practice are needed to see results. Instructor Seemann notes the body takes years to stiffen, and it takes Tai Chi time to undo these effects.
Instructor Seemann says Tai Chi also fosters a better understanding of one's body that can lead to healthier decisions about one's lifestyle.
He explains, "Part of getting into a philosophy like this is that you're thinking and connecting the mind/the body kind of issues so that you're making better choices, mentally, about how you live your life, what you're eating, what your diet is, and so forth that makes that a lot easier in my opinion."
Louise Scott, who has practiced Tai Chi for eight years, says people can come to Tai Chi with a variety of conditions. An illness or condition does not prevent people from doing Tai Chi. She also says future illnesses do not have to keep people from continuing with Tai Chi. She adds Tai Chi is not about fixing existing problems, but is about staying healthy, meaning the art can have benefits for people of all ages.