The Health Benefits of Tai Chi

November 3, 2015

The brain-body connection is a hot topic in senior circles, particularly with regard to the role that exercise plays in strengthening cognitive function. Maintaining endurance, strength, flexibility and balance is not only critical for physical health; it also increases oxygen and blood flow to the brain, boosting neurological function and possibly even working to prevent or lessen the effects of dementia, or conditions like Parkinson’s disease.

But not all forms of exercise are considered optimal or even safe for seniors who’ve never been active, for example, or who’ve been slowed down by surgery, diabetes, or other health issues. While it might not fit the typical fitness profile, the ancient Chinese practice of Tai Chi offers a unique combination of benefits to seniors of all abilities – featuring low-impact movements proven to boost blood flow and lower blood pressure, as well as improving flexibility, strength, and balance.

What is Tai Chi?

Often described as “meditation in motion”, Tai Chi combines slow-motion movements with mindful attention to breathing and careful hand-eye coordination. Classes involve a series of movements called forms that are taught in a sequence, beginning with a gentle warm-up and ending with a meditative cool-down. This introductory video gives a great overview of what to expect.

What are its benefits for seniors?

  • Tai Chi grows your brain: several studies have shown an increased brain volume in seniors who practiced Tai Chi regularly; one study saw positive impacts after only 8 weeks. Since age-related brain matter shrinkage is linked to cognitive decline, this one’s significant.
  • Tai Chi builds muscle strength: In a recent Stanford University study, seniors who took 36 Tai Chi classes in 12 weeks showed significant improvement in both lower- and upper-body strength, moving from sitting to standing more quickly, and better able to do arm curls. There’s also research suggesting it builds more muscle than other popular senior-friendly options, such as brisk walking.
  • Tai Chi improves balance: this is critical, considering falls are the greatest cause  of accident-related death in seniors. Proprioception – our ability to sense our bodies’ position in space – is a function that deteriorates with age, and is driven by inner ear sensory neurons combined with stretch receptors in ligaments and muscles. The regular practice of Tai Chi helps strengthen and hone this ability, helping to not only prevent falls but to boost seniors’ confidence in staying active and engaged in their surroundings.
  • Tai Chi builds better flexibility: as we age and lose muscle mass, our ligaments tighten, causing stiffness and joint pain. The slow, broad movements of Tai Chi gently stretch those ligaments and keep them limber, promoting movement and healthy blood flow to the body and brain.
  • Tai Chi is easy to take up: we could all recite the litany of excuses keeping us from the gym, no matter what our age! Tai Chai requires no fancy equipment or gym fees, and you don’t have to be in shape to take a class – just loose, comfortable clothing, and the desire to give it a try. Because its health benefits for seniors are catching on, you can find classes offered at local libraries, YMCAS, and senior centers, as well as most senior living communities.

Want to learn more? Head to Senior Planet to get more details on this fascinating practice.