The Ultimate Guide To Tai Chi For Seniors

By: Scott Grant, ATP, CRTS®

Seniors might suffer from a lack of activity, but the problem for many of them is that exercise is not always the most fun activity. Fortunately, solutions such as tai chi can help make workouts a bit different and more fun. Tai chi is an excellent way to improve balance, increase flexibility, and find peace.

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Keeping fit is critical to a healthy life regardless of your age. Unfortunately, getting sufficient exercise is usually challenging for many people, and it can be even more difficult for seniors who can be even more difficult for seniors that may have limitations such as joint pain, decreased balance, etc.

What Is Tai Chi?

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese movement practice that embraces body, mind, and spirit. Chi refers to “life energy.” The practice of tai chi is aimed at achieving harmony as well as cultivating our life energy.

Unlike yoga that involves holding specific poses, tai chi is more like a dance and incorporates elements of the martial arts form. Tai chi is relatively easy to learn and participants can make it as intense or low-impact as they please.

What Effects Does Tai Chi Have on the Human Body?

Tai chi is becoming one of the more popular methods of movement for older adults. That’s why active seniors along with those new to fitness can benefit from the low-impact moves that this gentle form of exercise teaches. Here are some of the effects that tai chi can have on the human body:

It Can Help to Reduce Stress

Tai chi encourages participants to practice deep breathing thus achieving a seemingly meditative state. According to studies [1], tai chi can be highly beneficial to mental health, helping you to get rid of stress, depression, and anxiety.

Medical studies [1] show that both tai chi and qigong (another Chinese martial arts practice) lower cortisol levels while raising endorphins. The resultant changes in hormonal levels can reduce anxiety levels, feelings of depression, and improve your overall mood.

It Can Help to Strengthen Muscles

One of the undesirable but inevitable effects of aging is naturally losing your muscle mass [2]. The best solution for combatting this is supplementing aerobic workouts such as walking with strength training.

Tai chi is great for strength training by seniors since it is easy on the joints and muscles. According to a study [3], tai chi exercises helped improve leg strength. Researchers found that participants with the best results are those that practiced tai chi for 8 to 12 months.

It Helps Reduce the Fear and Risk of Falling

Maintaining good balance, coordination, and flexibility become increasingly important as we grow older. While physical activities, especially weight-bearing workouts help seniors maintain and even improve mobility, activities such as tai chi reduce the fear and risk of falling [4] by improving motor function and balance.

It Helps Ease Arthritis Pain

Seniors suffering from chronic pain caused by conditions such as arthritis may experience a reduction in symptoms through regular tai chi practice. The joints are never fully extended, locked in place, or bent when performing tai chi, which makes it ideal for those suffering from joint pain.

Practicing tai chi is believed to help reduce the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis as well as osteoarthritis [5]. Furthermore, it could help improve your range of motion by improving joint mobility.

It May Help Prevent Cardiovascular Disease

Tai chi may lower your risk of developing cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, or even heart failure. According to a meta-analysis of 29 studies [6], tai chi can help improve heart health without experiencing any adverse effects.

senior couple practicing tai chi in the park
Tai chi requires no special equipment and can be done anywhere – from the park to your wheelchair at home.

Should Older Adults Do Tai Chi?

Tai chi is an excellent choice of workout for seniors since it involves slow and steady movements that are not only low-impact but also can be easily adapted. With a bit of patience, a good instructor, and choosing the right style of their stamina and age, it is possible for seniors to incorporate tai chi into their lifestyle to improve their physical and mental health.

Tips for Making Tai Chi Safer for Older Adults

Here are a few effective tips for keeping older adults safe when practicing tai chi:

  • Consult with a Doctor: Just as is the case with any fitness routine, it is advisable for seniors to first consult with a doctor. While tai chi is a highly accessible form of exercise, it is advisable to first seek a doctor’s approval before getting started.
  • Seated Exercises: Tai chi is popular with many seniors since it can be done seated by those that might not be steady on their feet. It can help you enjoy the health and wellness benefits it offers without the risk of a fall.
  • Warm Ups: Tai chi classes typically start with a warm up to loosen the joints and warm the muscles. If you are a senior, warm ups are a critical step to ensure safety that must never be skipped. If you or a loved one feels faint or dizzy during a class you/they should stop at once.
  • Modifications: Tai chi is the perfect workout choice for seniors due to its adaptability. You should discuss any physical concerns you might have with the instructor who can then easily modify the movements to fit your needs or overcome your physical limitations.
  • Avoid Overexertion: Seniors should always be mindful of moving comfortably within their range of motion without pushing themselves too far. Seniors should be encouraged to take regular breaks. With regular practice, they will slowly gain stamina and strength. Pushing yourself is definitely not worth an injury.

Beginner Tai Chi Videos You Can Do at Home

If you’d like to explore tai chi in the privacy of your own home, here are 3 highly recommended beginner tai chi videos for you that demonstrate the practice:

Gentle Tai Chi and Qi Gong LEAP Service

In this tai chi video, there are 3 people showing the various options for each workout. 2 people are seated while 1 is standing. For each of the exercises, each person shows the various modifications for different abilities.

The suggestions presented will help you or the senior you are caring for find ways to make the exercises work best for your/their own body. The voice over instructions reinforce this notion and strongly emphasize comfort and safety above everything else.

The video is actually split into 2 parts. At around the 9:30 minute mark, a natural stopping point is provided after the breathing exercises. The instructor then prompts the senior to either stop the session there or continue with more exercises depending on how they are feeling.

Tai Chi 5 Minutes a Day Module 01

The video is set against a lovely natural background with an instructor moving slowly through 5 different tai chi exercises. However, the main instruction is provided from 1:30 to 5:45 in the video. The instructor then goes through the 5 exercises one more time after the 5:45 minute mark, but doesn’t provide any spoken instructions.

The video does not show any modifications, but the movements presented can always be adapted depending on the senior’s abilities.

36-Minute Tai Chi Class

Instructor Cate Morrill walks the viewer through slow and gentle tai chi movements in this video. A second instructor at the same time demonstrates how the same movements can be done while seated, which is quite helpful for seniors with limited mobility.

How to Find a Tai Chi Class Near You

If you are a senior or care for a senior looking to get started with tai chi, then a live class is the best starting point. The great thing about live classes is that instant feedback on your form is provided and you also get the opportunity to meet with other tai chi fans.

Recreation facilities such as your local YMCA most likely offer tai chi classes. It is also offered at many community centers. Martial arts clubs also regularly offer classes for beginners. If you know a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, such as an acupuncturist, you can always ask them for recommendations.

Additional Resources

Here are some other ways you can learn more about tai chi for seniors.

DVDs

The great thing about DVDs is that you can always pause it to catch up whenever you are feeling lost or left behind. Here are some excellent tai chi DVDs you should consider checking out:

  1. Discover Tai Chi For Balance and Mobility
  2. Discover Tai Chi For Balance and Mobility
    $10.49

    This easy-to-follow DVD led by Scott Cole focuses specifically on exercises for improving your balance and overall mobility.

    Learn More at Amazon
  3. Tai Chi for Arthritis
  4. Tai Chi for Arthritis
    $29.95

    This DVD primarily focuses on exercises that help with arthritis, but it is still a great resource for anyone that wishes to learn the basics.  

    Learn More at Amazon
  5. Gentle, Sitting Tai Chi
  6. Gentle, Sitting Tai Chi
    $18.94

    This beginner-friendly DVD teaches the basics of seated tai chi. It is highly recommended for those seniors that may be suffering from problems with mobility.

    Learn More at Amazon

Books

Books have one glaring disadvantage when compared to DVDs since you cannot watch how to properly perform the tai chi movements. Still, they let you move at your desired pace and many offer great background information on the principles. Here are some great tai chi books you should definitely check out:

  1. Tai Chi Illustrated by Pixiang Qiu
  2. Tai Chi Illustrated by Pixiang Qiu
    $21.95

    This book provides an excellent introduction to tai chi for seniors since it has both clear photos and clear instructions. It also delves deep into tai chi’s rich history.

    Learn More at Amazon
  3. Tai Chi Classics by Waysun Liao
  4. Tai Chi Classics by Waysun Liao
    $16.95

    This is an excellent resource for those that want to dive deeper into the principles of tai chi. However, it is worth noting that it focuses more on its philosophical elements as opposed to basic technique.  

    Learn More at Amazon
  5. The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi
  6. The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi
    $14.22

    This book not only provides simple instructions but also information on the proven benefits of tai chi. It also delves into the spiritual aspects of the practice in an easy-to-understand way.

    Learn More at Amazon

Summary

Tai chi offers seniors a wide range of benefits that can improve one’s quality of life. Like home pedal exercisers, it is a safe and gentle form of exercise that’s appropriate for people of all ages and all levels of fitness. Furthermore, it is easily adaptable to certain health conditions and physical limitations.

If you are a senior or care for one, it is highly advisable to get started with this powerful, effective and peaceful martial art. The information provided here will quickly put you on the road to improved mental, physical, and emotional health.

References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3917559/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804956/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4100967/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5857038/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4850460/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2755083/

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