Tai Chi for Aging Adults
The Chinese movement meditation can help improve wellbeing.
Did you know that the Chinese movement patterns of tai chi have been around for centuries? This “movement meditation” consists of continuous, fluid and precisely controlled forms in a specific sequence. In recent years, study after study has proven the benefits of tai chi—particularly for active agers.
Indeed, tai chi is a great fit for older adults because it improves balance and enhances cognitive function, and both these outcomes decrease the risk of falls and boost overall well-being. Learn more about tai chi from Cody Sipe, PhD, associate professor and director of clinical research at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, co-founder of the Functional Aging Institute, and club owner with more than 20 years of experience specializing in exercise for mature adults.
Benefits of Tai Chi
Scientists have extensively studied the benefits of tai chi. Just since 2010, more than 50 systematic reviews published in scientific journals have documented tai chi’s value for elderly people at risk of falls.
Tai chi reduces
- risk of falls in older adults
- stress, anxiety and depression
- blood pressure
- joint pain
Tai chi improves
- energy and stamina
- mood and overall well-being
- aerobic capacity
- flexibility, balance and agility
- muscle strength and definition
- sleep quality
- immune system function
- congestive heart failure symptoms
Source: Mayo Clinic 2015.
The Core Principles of Tai Chi
To learn tai chi, you need to understand several principles that trace to its roots as a centuries-old Chinese martial art. By the 19th century, what started as a fast-moving combat technique had evolved into the slow, movement-meditation style we practice today (Bailey 2016). Of the handful of varieties, the most popular is the short-form, 24-movement Yang style (the full form has 108 movements).
Each of the varieties embodies six core principles:
This principle emphasizes proper posture. Tai chi recognizes three columns—one runs from the top of your head through the center of your body; the other two run from the shoulders through the hips.
Proper rotation occurs along the central axis of the spine to maintain alignment. Tai chi trains the body to rotate properly and to involve the entire body—not just the limbs—in a movement.
ROOTED AND GROUNDED
This concept encourages stability by maintaining firm contact with the ground. It begins with relaxing the body in all the postures and sinking into each posture as deeply as you can.
SUBSTANTIAL AND INSUBSTANTIAL
Tai chi is a series of one-legged events. The weight-bearing leg, which should be rooted and grounded, is called “substantial.” The leg that is off the ground bears no weight and is “insubstantial.”
Dan tian is the body’s center of mass, or center of gravity (roughly 2 inches in from your bellybutton and 2 inches down).
Tai chi has five levels of learning, which progress in a systematic fashion. First you master the body (performing all movements correctly), and then you master your breathing, your mind, your chi (energy) and your spirit.
Learning Tai Chi
Yang-style tai chi has a 24-form sequence. Nature inspires many of the names of the forms, in accordance with Chinese tradition. The moves effectively challenge static and dynamic balance, weight-shifting with center-of-gravity control, somatosensation, coordination, gait, mobility, flexibility, and lower-body strength.
Mastering tai chi can take years, but you can learn the 24-form routine in a few weeks. Do not expect to be accurate and fluid in your movements in the beginning. As you practice, you will get better and better at regulating the body (movements). In another few weeks, you can probably start focusing on moving up the ladder to regulating your breathing and then your mind, chi and spirit. By this point, the physical movements will be natural and “automatic,” allowing you to experience the meditative benefits of tai chi. Of course, the more time and practice you put into it, the faster you’ll be able to progress.
Bailey, D. 2016. Open the Door to Tai Chi. Denver: Lifelong Conditioning.
Mayo Clinic. 2015. Tai chi: A gentle way to fight stress. Accessed June 14, 2017: mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/tai-chi/art-20045184.