Tai chi is a form of ancient Chinese martial arts that is rooted in slow and deliberate movements that are low impact. These gentle movements can be perfect for seniors who want to avoid heavy stress on their bones and joints.
In this guide, we outline some of the major health benefits of tai chi for seniors, as well as how you may be able to find access to tai chi classes that are covered by a Medicare Advantage plan (Medicare Part C).
Scientists have called tai chi “the preferred mode of training” for seniors. Studies have found tai chi to be responsible for lower blood pressure, increased strength and improved artery function.1
Unlike many forms of exercise, tai chi can be done by just about anyone. There are even adaptations of the movements for people confined to wheelchairs or beds.
In China – where tai chi is recognized as the national form of exercise – more than half of the people who begin participating in tai chi are over the age of 50.2
Some of the major benefits of tai chi for seniors include:
Falls are one of the biggest injury risks to older adults. Studies have shown that practicing tai chi can reduce the risk of falling by up to 50 percent.3
Tai chi has also shown to improve stability in people with Parkinson’s disease who might otherwise struggle to retain their balance and strength as the disease progresses.
Tai chi’s movements promote greater upper- and lower-body flexibility, which are abilities that tend to weaken with age.
The main premise of tai chi is that the mind, body and spirit are all in balance. When your qi (pronounced “chee”) is low, so too is your physical and mental energy.
Tai chi raises your qi and gives you the energy needed to take on the day.
Though it doesn’t require rapid movement, tai chi is a form of aerobic exercise that gets the heart pumping and increases the flow of oxygen in the blood.
Evidence suggests that “mind-body practices” like tai chi can slow the activity of genes associated with inflammation.4
These positive effects can essentially reverse the damage that stress can cause to the molecules in our joints and muscles. This is especially helpful for people who suffer from arthritis and asthma, and it can also reduce the risk of inflammation-related psychiatric disorders.
The meditative nature of tai chi relaxes the body and mind, and it can help wash away your stress and anxiety. This can all lead to better sleep.
Several scientific studies show correlations between tai chi and improved sleep, particularly for older adults with “cognitive impairment,” which refers to “difficulty remembering, learning new things, concentrating or making decisions.”5
The focused breathing and mental relaxation of tai chi typically has a positive effect on the nervous system and our mood-regulating hormones.
Engaging muscles in a slow and methodic way requires tapping into deep energy preserves and using a balance of many different muscles simultaneously.
While tai chi may not be rigorous, a one-hour tai chi session has been shown to burn around 250 calories in a 175-pound person.6
Chinese men who practiced tai chi were found less likely to die over a five-year study period, compared to men who didn’t exercise at all.7 This is hardly surprising given all of the health benefits of tai chi outlined above.
Exercise can relieve chronic pain by improving blood flow, keeping joints lubricated and strengthening core muscles to take the stress off of your limbs and joints.
Tai chi has been shown to achieve these benefits at an even higher rate than other forms of more traditional exercise, which can be especially helpful for seniors living with fibromyalgia.8
Tai chi is beneficial for seniors because of its low level of stress on the body and the fact that it does not require any weights or exercise machines to practice. And once you learn the movements and breathing techniques, you can practice it all on your own.
Plus, many Medicare Advantage plans include memberships to SilverSneakers and other fitness programs that may include tai chi classes.
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This article is for informational purposes only. It is not healthcare advice. Speak to your doctor or healthcare provider about your specific healthcare needs.
1 Xi Lu, et al. Effects of Tai Chi training on arterial compliance and muscle strength in female seniors: a randomized clinical trial. (Jan. 4, 2012). European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 20(2), 238-245. https://doi.org/10.1177/2047487311434233.
2 Frantzis, Bruce. What Is Tai Chi? Energy Arts. Retrieved from www.energyarts.com/what-is-tai-chi.
3 Lomas-Vega, Rafael, et al. Tai Chi for Risk of Falls, A Meta-analysis. (July 24, 2017). Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. https://doi.org/10.1111/jgs.15008.
4 Marchant, Jo. Mindfulness and meditation dampen down inflammation genes. (June 16, 2017). New Scientist. Retrieved from www.newscientist.com/article/2137595-mindfulness-and-meditation-dampen-down-inflammation-genes.
5 Chan, Aileen WK, et al. Tai chi qigong as a means to improve night-time sleep quality among older adults with cognitive impairment: a pilot randomized controlled trial. (Sep. 16, 2016). Clinical Interventions in Aging, 11, 1277-1286. doi: 10.2147/CIA.S111927.
6 Calculation based on data obtained using an online calorie calculator, located at https://captaincalculator.com/health/calorie/calories-burned-tai-chi-calculator.
7 Na Wang, et al. Associations of Tai Chi, Walking, and Jogging with Mortality in Chinese Men. (June 27, 2013). American Journal of Epidemiology, 178(5), 791-796. https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwt050.
8 Chenchen Wang, et al. Effects of tai chi versus aerobic exercise for fibromyalgia: comparative effectiveness randomized controlled trial. (Mar. 21, 2018). BMJ, 360. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k851.
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