The Best Tai Chi Guide for Seniors
Tai Chi is a very gentle martial art that has been used for centuries as both a form of self-defense and as a method for healing or simply maintaining good health.
There are different styles of Tai Chi that are appropriate in different situations, but all of them have certain things in common. Tai Chi is a method that cultivates the flow of energy or chi throughout the body.
Chi (sometimes spelled qi) is an Eastern concept that’s defined as an animating principle similar to prana in the Yoga tradition. When chi is circulating with enough vigor to all parts of the body, a person is healthy. When chi stagnates or gets blocked in certain areas of the body, disease develops.
The concept of chi is one that isn’t very familiar to a lot of Westerners, but Easterners regard chi as a natural part of their earthly existence. Many different aspects of Eastern culture take the idea of chi and the flow of energy into consideration.
In Feng Shui, for example, the universal energy of chi is considered before building houses. The positioning of doors and windows may be altered to work better with land features, geographical landmarks, and other aspects of the construction in cultures that understand chi and the movement of energy.
Acupuncture is a type of alternative medicine that functions according to the same principles as Tai Chi. Both acupuncture and Tai Chi can be used to encourage the flow of chi throughout the body. These systems are both remarkably gentle and they enhance the human body’s ability to heal itself and maintain health with pharmaceuticals or surgery.
Though many Westerners may not fully understand chi or even ascribe to its value in the practice of Tai Chi as a form of exercise, chi and Eastern culture go hand in hand. The idea of manipulating energy in the body and the surrounding environment is nothing strange or new to citizens of Asian countries.
Tai Chi practitioners do not break a sweat when they practice this exercise. Indeed, to break a sweat in Tai Chi means that you are pushing your body too hard.
Chi is lost when people sweat and the goal of this martial art is to gently encourage energy to flow throughout the body without expending it needlessly by straining, breathing hard, or sweating. So this martial art isn’t strenuous at all and it can be practiced by people of any age and in almost any health condition as long as the practitioner can move at least part of their body.
It requires very little space to perform Tai Chi. Some styles require only as much space “as would be required for a cow to lay down” on the floor. There are no special tools or mats required for the practice, so many Tai Chi groups are able to meet informally in outdoor settings like parks.
Below, we answer some of the most common questions that you might have about the practice of Tai Chi for seniors:
What is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that is not only invigorating for the body, but also for the mind and spirit. It involves very slow, deliberate, and gentle movements that develop strength, balance, and endurance.
One of the unique things about this martial art is that Tai Chi focuses on breath and state of mind, making it similar to yoga, but better for seniors because it can improve balance into old age. Tai Chi encourages practitioners to focus on their breath and to also bring their attention inward to their thoughts and emotions, which is part of what categorizes Tai Chi as an “internal” martial art.
In Chinese medicine, “chi” (also sometimes called qi) is the energy force behind all life. Tai Chi can help you harness this life force or universal energy for healing and invigoration. Breath, special movements, and the moving meditation concepts of Tai Chi blend together into an exercise that is particularly well suited to seniors who want to keep themselves limber and energized as they age. In fact, in China, elderly people everywhere practice Tai Chi on a regular basis with great results!
Styles of Tai Chi Good for Seniors
Tai Chi is a very gentle type of exercise regardless of the style that you choose to pursue. There are many different styles of Tai Chi, but the four primary styles are listed below:
- Chen - This is one of the oldest styles of Tai Chi. It is more focused on Tai Chi as a martial art and a method of self defense. It is more intense than some other styles, but still very gentle and a good option for seniors who want a more invigorating workout that is also practical as a martial art.
- Sun - In contrast, Sun Tai Chi is one of the newest styles. This style is very smooth, graceful, and high-stanced (in comparison to the deep, low stances of other styles). Dr. Paul Lam developed a special Sun Tai Chi style for people with arthritis. This specialized version is less taxing on the joints and was developed to spur a healing response for practitioners.
- Yang - This Tai Chi style is one of the more popular and easily accessible styles when it comes to finding classes and learning materials. It is characterized by movements that are flowing and gentle which are great for seniors who want a low-impact workout.
- Wu - The Wu Tai Chi style is very similar to the Yang style. The primary difference is that the movements with this style are smaller and less dramatic than those in the Yang style.
The Benefits of Tai Chi for Seniors
The benefits of Tai Chi are profound. There are many mental, physical, and spiritual benefits to be derived from the practice of Tai Chi, and these benefits are often enough to increase both life span as well as health span (the length of time that an elderly individual remains healthy and independent).
Similar to jogging, yoga, and other types of exercise, Tai Chi can increase life expectancy and quality of life exponentially, and as an extra bonus, it’s a gentle exercise that tends to be appealing to a wide group of seniors as well as young people.
Some of the numerous benefits of Tai Chi include:
● Decreased risk of falling - Individuals who practice Tai Chi regularly tend to be 50% less likely to fall and hurt themselves. Tai Chi improves core strength, which is one of the key factors that impacts whether or not a person is likely to fall.
It also helps seniors regain and maintain an awareness of where their body is located in space as well as good hand-eye coordination. Plus, Tai Chi builds confidence in seniors who might otherwise feel somewhat insecure about their ability to maneuver successfully. A lack of confidence is one of the primary risk factors when it comes to higher chances of falling.
● A healthier cardiovascular system - Tai Chi has incredible benefits on the cardiovascular system. Even though Tai Chi isn’t an intense aerobic exercise, the relaxation and breathing aspects of the martial art lend themselves to lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation in the body, lowering triglyceride levels, and increasing levels of “good” cholesterol. Individuals who have had heart attacks in the past can practice Tai Chi safely while also still strengthening their cardiovascular system.
● Improved sleep - Tai Chi can have a significant impact on sleep, especially for seniors. Whereas some insomnia medications may cause grogginess or other unpleasant side effects, Tai Chi offers the benefit of relieving insomnia while also boosting energy during the daytime hours.
● Better posture - Having good posture can make a big difference when it comes to overall health, aging gracefully, and resisting falls. Tai Chi helps seniors improve and maintain good posture by gently strengthening and toning muscles that are responsible for keeping you standing up straight. A good posture can also improve your ability to breathe freely, which can alone have wonderful benefits.
● Increased immunity - Although this one might come as a surprise for some people, a regular Tai Chi practice can actually help boost immunity! The details of why Tai Chi increases immunity aren’t super well studied, but there have nonetheless been studies proving that older adults who practiced Tai Chi regularly demonstrated a better immune response after receiving both Shingles and flu vaccines. Immunity is extremely important for seniors, so any natural remedy for improved immunity is worth trying.
● Chronic pain reduction - Tai Chi has been shown to be useful for reducing chronic pain in various parts of the body, which is something that nearly 85% of all seniors experience. Studies have proven that Tai Chi can have considerable effects in reducing the pain of fibromyalgia, arthritis, and tension headaches even when only practiced for one hour twice a week.
● Helps treat diabetes - Though this benefit is a bit surprising, Tai Chi can actually have an effect on reducing the symptoms of type 2 diabetes. Tai Chi reduces blood glucose levels and inflammation, as well as improving the immune response of elderly individuals with this type of diabetes. Plus, regular Tai Chi practice has helped people with type 2 diabetes reduce their food cravings and successfully manage a healthy diet more effectively, thus improving their mood, overall health, and general sense of well-being.
● Social benefits - Seniors who take up a Tai Chi practice often find themselves in the midst of a new and lively social group of other active seniors and even other younger adults who share a common interest. Tai Chi is often done in groups, with people joining the group as part of a class or as a kind of club. This can be a great way to reinvigorate a social life that’s gone stale, and it can also be a fun new hobby for seniors looking for an activity that is as social as it is personal and individualized.
Can you lose weight doing Tai Chi?
Yes, some people lose weight doing Tai Chi, especially if it is paired with other lifestyle changes such as a healthier diet and a generally more active lifestyle.
But, even a light practice of Tai Chi with no other changes can encourage some weight loss! It’s important to keep in mind that Tai Chi is not a high-impact aerobic exercise, so its weight loss potential isn’t as high as other exercises such as walking or jogging, but it can still produce weight loss for some people if practiced on a regular basis over a longer period of time.
Does Tai Chi build muscle?
Tai Chi doesn’t build muscle in the same way that other exercises do, but it will tone the body and help seniors build strength throughout the body.
Tai Chi is a martial art that’s built on the idea of life force energy rather than on the power of brute strength (like some other martial arts). But, though the movements are graceful, slow, and flowing, they actually require a fair amount of strength and control. Tai Chi strengthens muscles, but it won’t make you “bulk up” like other more high impact exercises or martial arts exercises might.
In fact, many martial arts experts are endlessly amazed and baffled by the comparatively lithe build of Tai Chi masters. While practitioners of martial arts like kung fu and taekwondo may be more muscular and strong physically, Tai Chi practitioners don’t rely so much on muscle and physical strength as they do on other factors when it comes to defeating an opponent.
But, for seniors who are looking for a low-impact (yet effective) exercise, this demonstrates how Tai Chi can build strength without the strenuous exercises required to build actual muscle mass. Its effects on strength and physical ability can be incredible, but in unexpected ways.
Why is Tai Chi good for arthritis?
The gentle, fluid movements of Tai Chi make this an excellent exercise option for arthritis sufferers. Tai Chi is a type of exercise that can be done by just about anyone. It improves balance and reduces stress in addition to relieving arthritis pain.
One study that was performed in Boston, Massachusetts at the Tufts Medical Center was specifically designed to look at the effects of Tai Chi on people with severe knee osteoarthritis. This study showed that Tai Chi could reduce the pain and impairment caused by severe osteoarthritis in the knees.
Dr. Paul Lam, a family physician who works in Sydney Australia and a famous Tai Chi instructor developed arthritis when he was growing up in China as a teenager. Malnourishment had caused Lam to develop cartilage problems at a very young age.
But he started practicing Tai Chi to ease his arthritic pain and over time, he modified the Tai Chi Sun Style into a special form that’s particularly beneficial for people who suffer from arthritis. This modified Sun Style has been altered so that high-risk moves have been deleted and movements that have healing benefits are featured more heavily. Dr. Lam’s 12-step course does not require any special equipment except comfortable clothing and a willingness to learn!
According to studies that have been done on the use of Tai Chi to treat rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, regular practitioners experienced a reduction in pain by an average of 2.15 points on a 10 point scale.
On the other hand, individuals who did not practice Tai Chi experienced a change in pain that ranged from 0.5 points lower to 1.6 point higher over the duration of the study. Another study reported that Tai Chi practitioners scored 0.4 points better on a 0 to 10 point scale measuring arthritic disease activity. The control group who did not participate in Tai Chi experienced no change in their disease activity during the same time period.
People who suffer from arthritis tend to have better overall functioning than those who don’t according to additional research. According to one study, Tai Chi participants scored 0.33 points better on a 0 to 3 point scale than the control group who did not practice Tai Chi. Those who didn’t do Tai Chi, in contrast, reported 0.1 points worse on the 0 to 3 scale indicating that their ability to function normally in their daily lives went down while the functioning of Tai Chi practitioners with arthritis went up.
Is Tai Chi hard on the knees?
No. In fact, when done properly, Tai Chi can actually be a treatment for knee pain and other knee issues! There are many Tai Chi movements that can improve and even reverse knee pain and injuries over time if you are trained by a good instructor.
Tai Chi involves many movements that place an emphasis on transferring weight, bending and moving the knees in conjunction with the hips, all of which can help build strength and flexibility in the right places so as to facilitate healing in the knees. However, just like with any exercise, it’s important to be careful and make sure that you have a good instructor who can show you proper form. This is especially true if you already have a pre-existing knee problem!
Does Tai Chi strengthen the core?
Yes, one of the key elements of Tai Chi that makes it so beneficial for seniors is that it effectively strengthens the core. The movements done in Tai Chi are excellent for strengthening and training the muscles in the abdomen and back. Core strength is vital for balance and postural support, so performing exercises like Tai Chi that gently cultivate greater core strength is particularly good for seniors. Good core strength and balance are two things that can lower the risk of falls for seniors.
Tai Chi is a very low-impact exercise. It demonstrates that it’s possible for seniors to improve core strength without doing a high-impact exercise that might put them at risk of falling or hurting themselves in some other way. Tai Chi is an excellent exercise for increasing the strength of the core to diminish your risk of falls in daily life without putting you at a greater risk of falling during your workout!
Can Tai Chi help with anxiety?
Yes! Tai Chi is a great exercise for reducing both anxiety and depression. Most of the time, anxiety comes from some kind of stress, whether it be big or small. Tai Chi requires practitioners to turn their attention away from the distractions of the outward world in favor of going inward.
This inward journey tends to yield great insight, and when paired with deliberate breathing techniques, anxiety levels can drop exponentially. Deep breathing exercises are commonly recommended for people who experience issues with anxiety, so it’s not much of a surprise that Tai Chi and its emphasis on breathing can have a positive effect on anxiety reduction.
There has been extensive research that has shown that any kind of exercise, including Tai Chi, can increase the body’s production of endorphins. Endorphins are responsible for improving mood, so if you suffer from depression from time to time, a regular practice of Tai Chi can help minimize the depression symptoms.
How many times a week should you do Tai Chi?
You can do Tai Chi as many times each week as you’d like! Some practitioners do Tai Chi twice a day nearly every day of the week. Other practitioners do Tai Chi once a week. Of course, your results will be much more pronounced if you practice more often. And the health benefits of doing Tai Chi will also be more powerful if you practice this martial art on a regular basis.
Most Tai Chi practitioners spend at least 1 hour per session practicing their art. Though the movements are very gentle and slow, 1 hour of Tai Chi feels like a vigorous workout indeed!
If you’re suffering from a disease like arthritis, you may practice Tai Chi for shorter, 30 minute sessions. That’s okay too! Many of the leg movements and stances that are used in Tai Chi involve only about 1 to 2 inches of movement up or down, but practitioners hold their stance as they pivot or change the positioning of their arms and by the end of the session, this gentle up and down movement, with isometric stances and adjustments has a very obvious strengthening effect on the legs even after short sessions doing Tai Chi.
What is the best time to do Tai Chi?
In China, Tai Chi was (and still often is) practiced at dawn or just after waking in the morning. Even today in all parts of the world, most practitioners of Tai Chi choose to practice in the morning shortly after waking up.
Practicing in the morning is an excellent way to prepare your mind and body for the day ahead, and it’s also a relaxing way to set a calm tone for your day. Plus, doing some gentle exercise in the morning tells your body that it’s time to wake up, which will lead to overall higher energy levels and improved focus and mood.
Although most people recommend doing Tai Chi in the morning, some individuals choose to practice in the evening shortly before bedtime. Tai Chi is a more invigorating exercise, but it can also be very relaxing. Tai Chi may be a good activity to help prepare your body for sleep. Some people even choose to do Tai Chi in the morning and at night! In reality, the best time to do Tai Chi is up to the practitioner. One of the purposes of Tai Chi is to tune into your body and what it needs, so listen closely!
Which is better for seniors: yoga or tai chi?
Tai Chi is much gentler on the body than yoga. Unless you’re taking a yoga class that has been specifically designed for seniors and their unique health concerns, Tai Chi would be much less strenuous than yoga.
Seniors can push themselves too hard at yoga and easily injure themselves (even young people injure themselves doing yoga), but Tai Chi emphasizes the idea of moderation as a key feature of this exercise.
Tai Chi practitioners are encouraged to not overextend their bodies, but maintain alignment, working from their core. Movements are gentle and subtle, but still powerful. So seniors who are considering which exercise to take up should look closely at Tai Chi over yoga.
Tai Chi classes are also often filled with people of all ages. Whereas most seniors would have to take a yoga class with other seniors to avoid injury, Tai Chi classes are usually a mixed group of young and old. If you’d like to take a class that doesn’t require segregation by age, Tai Chi would be an excellent choice!
Resources for Learning Tai Chi
Is Tai Chi difficult to learn?
Tai Chi is not difficult to learn if you find the right resources. There are many in-person as well as video classes and even books available on Tai Chi but you may have to experiment to find the right one for you. Video courses often move more quickly than in-person courses because video instructors assume that you’ll rewind and re-watch the parts of difficult sequences that aren’t making sense to you.
One of the most difficult things that students learn from their Tai Chi practice involves circular movements and the transition from one core move into another. In Tai Chi, every movement flows into the next movement and the goal for most Tai Chi styles is to never stop moving, though the movement is slow, calculated, and very balanced. Western culture emphasizes linear thought and beginnings and endings. But Tai Chi movements often have no distinct beginning or ending. Most movements utilize circularity and cycles that come to an end only as the beginning of the next movement takes shape.
Can you teach yourself Tai Chi?
Yes! But though you can teach yourself Tai Chi, your results will take shape more quickly if you work with a knowledgeable instructor. There are a number of online instructors, videos, books, and even Tai Chi instructors who will come to your home to provide private instruction. But it doesn’t matter if you go to a class, hire a private instructor, or take up a video course on Tai Chi. The real key to learning this martial art is practice! Tai Chi is not just about memorizing movements or copying what an instructor is doing. It is about learning to move energy through your body and your surroundings. As a student of Tai Chi, you’ll learn how to tune into yourself and feel subtle energies that may never have been apparent to you before.
The Best Resources for Learning Tai Chi
Though it is usually best to learn Tai Chi from a qualified instructor, if you don’t have access to in-person Tai Chi classes, it is possible to learn from home using books, videos, and even live classes online with private instructors. Below are some of the best resources for learning Tai Chi if you don’t have access to in-person classes.
Book with Video:
By Shou Yu Liang
DVD with Shou Yu Lian. Dr. Yan, Jwing-Ming (Director)
This book and video set features Shou Yu Liang, a well-known and very talented martial artist who provides a thorough overview of postures and movements in both a book and DVD format.
DVDs, CDs, and Books
This web site provides resources for people with arthritis who wish to learn Tai Chi to enhance their health, reduce their pain and diminish other symptoms of arthritis.
This hour-long video covers the first half of the basic 24 movements for the Yang style form. It features a warm-up followed by demonstrations and explanations of each movement.
This 45 minute video is hosted by Dr. Paul Lam, a physician and Tai Chi instructor. Dr. Lam provides instruction on basic Tai Chi movements in this video and he discusses the scientific studies that have correlated health benefits with each of these movements.
Online Tai Chi Instructors:
This web site provides a list of online Tai Chi instructors who are accessible via the Internet from anywhere in the world.