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Older man in loose white clothing doing tai chi in a park, leaning slightly forward with one arm extended

Tai Chi for Seniors: Improve Your Physical and Mental Health With This Gentle Form of Exercise

"Meditation in motion" is a phrase that's often used to describe tai chi. For seniors, the focused, low-impact movements can help clear the mind, just like meditation. Older adults can also experience many other benefits from this type of exercise, including increased strength, improved mobility, better flexibility, and stronger immunity.

One of the best things about tai chi is that you can experience all of these health perks without a large investment in special equipment. Plus, you don't need to have excellent coordination or strength to get started. You can even practice the movements in a chair. That adaptability is one reason why this practice is good exercise for seniors who may have physical limitations.

The information below will help you understand the central principles of this discipline, how it developed, and how it differs from yoga. You'll learn about the many benefits of tai chi for seniors and get tips on how to get started and how to prepare for tai chi classes. Plus, you'll explore books, DVDs, videos, and apps that make it possible for you to practice at home.

What Is Tai Chi?

Tai chi is an "internal" martial art that originated in China centuries ago. It's considered internal because the focus is on developing mental or spiritual strength instead of defeating an opponent through physical strength.

The basic principles originate in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism. Under the tenets of Taoism, everything is composed of two opposing (but complementary) elements: yin and yang.

  • Yin elements are considered to be feminine, soft, and yielding
  • Yang elements are considered to be masculine, hard, and rigid

According to Taoism, in order to achieve a peaceful and long life, we need to balance these sides within ourselves. The movements are designed to help you achieve this equilibrium between yin and yang. In other words, the "point" of tai chi is to restore balance in your body and your mind.

But if that explanation is a bit too esoteric for you, don't worry. In simpler terms, the gentle movements and focus on breathing can help you relax, get some light exercise, and develop body awareness.

In that sense, the discipline is like yoga. But the main difference between yoga and tai chi is that the latter exercise is based in movement and doesn't involve holding static poses. So, many people find that tai chi is better than yoga for seniors who can't stay in one position for very long.

But when it comes to determining which is best, yoga or tai chi, the choice ultimately depends on your personal preferences. And if you're not sure which activity you should try, it might also depend on whether you can find a good class. (Each discipline is best learned under a properly trained instructor.) But keep in mind that many seniors enjoy both activities.

A brief history

The origins of tai chi are a bit hazy, and it's difficult to separate what actually happened from what has been passed down as legend. But one thing is certain: This activity (also known as tai chi chuan) began as a martial art in China many centuries ago. (The term tai chi translates to "supreme ultimate," while "chuan" means "fist.") The origins are often credited to a 13th-century monk named Zhang Sanfeng. According to lore, he was inspired to develop the discipline after watching a fight between a crane and a snake.

Today, few people practice this martial art as a form of self-defense. (Because of its gentle nature, it takes carefully cultivated self-control to use it as an effective form of combat.) Instead, most people practice it for the mental and physical health benefits.

Styles of tai chi

The styles are named after the Chinese families from which they originated (sometimes referred to as a style's "lineage.") Four of the main styles are:

  • Chen—The oldest style, which is more intense and focused on self-defense than many other styles
  • Sun—The newest style, which involves a higher stance and smooth, graceful movements
  • Yang—The most popular style, which focuses on gentle, flowing movements
  • Wu—A variation of the Yang style, which is characterized by small movements

As the activity has grown in popularity, different variations have developed. For example, Tai Chi Chih originated in California during the 1970s. It's a simplified form that is suitable for many seniors.

Another variation is sitting tai chi. It's an excellent option for seniors who can't stand or who are at high risk for falls. It offers many of the same benefits as doing the movements while standing.

The Basics of Doing Tai Chi

Tai chi is not difficult physically. No matter what type you do, the movements are slow and deliberate. One motion always flows into the next. In fact, it can feel a bit like dancing.

A choreographed series of movements (also known as postures) is called a form or a set. Each set has a certain number of postures, and a set usually starts with postures that are intended as a warmup. The number of postures in a set depends on the style.

Many postures have poetic names. For example, look at these three postures:

1. Wave hands like clouds

2. Grasp the bird's tail

3. Part the wild horse's mane

As you can see from the videos above, the names often reflect the motion involved.

Tai chi movements involve shifting your weight from one foot to another. (This is one reason why tai chi is good for balance.) All of the movements are designed to create an awareness of how your feet are connected to the earth. Throughout a set, you are often slightly crouched, with your knees flexed. This posture helps to strengthen your glute and leg muscles, which are important muscles for balance.

It's also important to keep your back as straight possible. (Some teachers suggest envisioning your spine as a "necklace of pearls hanging from heaven.") Over time, this postural awareness can help improve your posture in everyday life.

The Benefits of Tai Chi

Older man and woman practicing tai chi, each with one foot forward under a bent front knee and one arm raised at an angle

This is a whole-body exercise—and that includes your mind. As a result, it offers an astonishing number of physical and mental benefits. Tai chi is good for seniors because it can increase both your lifespan, which is how long you live, and your "health span," which is how long you can function independently.

In fact, when it comes to overall lifespan, one study found that this activity can reduce mortality, much like jogging.1 (For many seniors, it is a much more appealing activity than jogging.)

Here are some of the many ways in which tai chi can improve your quality of life and reduce the negative effects of the aging process. (But bear in mind that you should always check with your healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise routine.)

1. Lower risk of falling

Practicing tai chi can reduce your risk of falls by up to 50 percent.2 Why is it so effective at fall prevention? Several factors are involved. Not only does the activity help with core stability, which can improve your balance, but it also improves proprioception (i.e., your awareness of where your body is in space).

It can also prevent falls by boosting your confidence. That's because feeling uncertain on your feet is one of the biggest risk factors for falls. Researchers have noted that seniors who practice tai chi feel more confident in their daily movements, making them less likely to fall.3

2. Relief from arthritis and various types of pain

Multiple studies have proven that tai chi is a good exercise for seniors with arthritis. In fact, one study found that it is just as effective as physical therapy in treating osteoarthritis in the knee.4 (Of course, an ideal treatment plan would combine both.)

Tai chi exercises are good for arthritis and joint pain because the movements help joints retain their range of motion, so they don't stiffen further.5 (Many other forms of exercise cause too much pain for a person with arthritis.) Because the exercise is low impact and gentle, its beneficial movements don't cause unnecessary pain.

The movements have also been proven to be effective for treating joint pain from osteoporosis and fibromyalgia.6,7 As well, tai chi is good for a bad back because it can restore mobility to the spine without jarring movements. Similarly, it can help with sciatica by increasing hamstring flexibility and improving your core strength.

3. Weight loss

Because of its slow movements, tai chi might not seem like an ideal exercise for senior weight loss. But at least one study has found that it can help you lose weight.8

Here are some of the factors that might be at play: Developing greater mindfulness helps practitioners get in touch with their bodies' hunger cues. And the activity offers a way to deal with stress that doesn't involve turning to comfort food or alcohol. Plus, you may be surprised to learn that you burn about 270 calories an hour doing tai chi, on average (based on a 150-pound person). That's more than brisk walking or power yoga.9

4. Improved cardiovascular health

Although it may not appear to be a very intense form of aerobic exercise, this martial art can improve your cardiovascular system. With its focus on relaxation, tai chi is good for high blood pressure.10 It has also been proven to:

  • Improve the overall quality of life for people with heart failure11
  • Provide a safe form of exercise for heart attack survivors12
  • Raise "good" cholesterol levels10
  • Lower triglyceride levels13

5. Better sleep

For seniors who struggle with insomnia, this exercise can be a drug-free solution. That's important because many drugs used to treat sleep problems can make older adults groggy and more likely to experience a fall. One study found that seniors who practiced Tai Chi Chih (a modified form of the activity) experienced more improvements in their sleep habits than seniors who took classes on good sleep hygiene.14

6. Enhanced posture

Retaining good posture is an important part of aging gracefully. Not only does your posture influence how others see you, but it also affects your mobility and even your breathing.

Tai chi strengthens the core, which in turn can improve your posture. As well, learning to focus on the way you move can improve the way you carry yourself.

7. Improved immunity

As you age, your immune system becomes less efficient. This exercise offers a way to fight that part of the aging process. As just one example, one study found that the response to the shingles vaccine among seniors who practiced tai chi was similar to that of people 30 years younger.15 Older adults who practice it also have a better response to the flu shot.16

8. Reduced anxiety and depression

Many studies confirm that tai chi can help with anxiety and depression in seniors.17 (However, it's important to note that this practice is not a substitute for any other interventions that your doctor recommends. Rather, it can be one important component of a comprehensive treatment plan.)

Several factors contribute to the positive effects on mental health:

  • Because the focus is on breath and movement while doing tai chi, seniors get a break from thinking about daily stress.
  • Doing activities that you enjoy can boost your mood, no matter what you do.
  • Even mild exercise like this can raise your levels of mood-elevating endorphins.
  • The smooth, flowing movements can relax your muscles and create a sense of well-being.

9. Cognitive benefits

This martial art has been shown to slow cognitive decline in people with mild dementia.18 And tai chi classes for seniors can provide valuable social contact that can improve the quality of life for seniors with dementia.

10. Social benefits

Discussions about the many health benefits of tai chi often miss one crucial element: It's fun. After all, for seniors, engaging in fun activities carries its own rewards.

Even if you can't find a good class and have to practice on your own, the increased self-confidence you get can improve your ability to make friends.

How to Get Started With Tai Chi: Questions and Answers

Now that you've read about some of the benefits that you can experience, you may be eager to try it for yourself.

Here's the most important fact about taking up this activity: It's easy to get started. But starting something new can feel intimidating, so here are answers to some common questions:

1. How can I find beginner tai chi classes?

If you're new to the practice, a live class is the best way to start. That way, you can get feedback on your form and meet other fans of the martial art.

You can find classes at recreation facilities like the YMCA. Tai chi is also offered at many community centers. And martial arts clubs often have classes for beginners.

And if you know a Chinese medicine practitioner, such as an acupuncturist, ask whether he or she has any recommendations.

This martial art doesn't have national standards for licensing or certification, although associations may have their own standards for instructors. You can find instructors who are certified by the Tai Chi for Health Institute on the group's website. As well, the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association provides a search tool to find instructors.

Since a good instructor will help you learn the basics and influence how much you enjoy the activity, you should try to meet an instructor in person before committing to a class. Make sure you feel comfortable with him or her.

2. How much does tai chi cost?

The cost of classes can vary widely. In general, however, this activity is cheaper than many others. One study found that tai chi costs about $3.50 per class, on average.19 And keep this in mind: Another study found that, for seniors living at home, this practice is the most cost-effective fall-prevention strategy available.20

If you're looking for free tai chi classes for seniors near you, ask your healthcare provider. Many hospitals and rehabilitation facilities offer classes for no charge.

3. What do I have to do to prepare?

Your first step should be having a talk with your doctor. Although this exercise is very accessible, you want to get the green light before you start.

Otherwise, preparing is simple. No special equipment is required. (For instance, you don't need a mat for tai chi like you do for yoga.) When it's time for your first class, you just need to wear loose clothing. Regular practitioners recommend avoiding snugly fitting clothes like leotards. That's because a tighter fight is thought to restrict the energy flow through the body.

Tai chi uniforms are available, but they're often unnecessary. And in many classes, you may actually look out of place in one. So check out what the other students wear before you purchase anything.

You should wear soft, comfortable shoes. Special tai chi shoes can help prevent foot problems, particularly for seniors with diabetes. Talk to your instructor about the best option for you.

4. What should I do at my first class?

Starting something new can sometimes feel a little intimidating. If you need motivation to head to your first class, keep all of the tai chi benefits at the front of your mind. Also, give yourself a pat on the back for trying a new activity. After all, venturing out of your comfort zone is an important part of aging gracefully and thriving as a senior.

At your first class, you should be aware that, as with other forms of martial arts, proper etiquette is essential. Remember to show respect to everyone else in the class. And try to arrive early. If you come to a class late, don't just walk right in; wait for the instructor to invite you to join the class.

Don't be surprised if you feel a bit frustrated during your first few classes. It's all part of the learning process. And you might experience some sore muscles at first, especially if you're not normally active. However, it's important to listen to your body. If you feel any pain during the class, you may need some form correction from your instructor. (The exercises should not cause any pain.)

5. How can I progress with tai chi?

When it comes to the basic forms, experts say that it takes about 30 to 36 hours to learn tai chi. But it can take a lifetime to truly master it. Consistency is key.

So it's better to do a little bit every day than it is to do a lot just once a week. If you're able, you should do tai chi at least seven times a week, even if it's just for 10 minutes a session. But, as always, listen to your body.

As you progress, you may discover that you want to have longer sessions or practice more often. You may also start to use the principles in everyday life. For example, you may stand up straighter, or you may think about the movements and engage your core muscles if you have to reach for something.

Resources for Learning Tai Chi

When you're beginning tai chi, learning the movements in a class with a trained instructor is the best way to develop proper form. But if you want to practice at home, or if you can't find a good class, the activity can be self-taught, thanks to the many good books, DVDs, and videos that are available. You can even find music soundtracks that provide a good atmosphere while you practice on your own.

Here are a few options for instruction:

Books

Books have one obvious disadvantage in that you can't watch how to properly perform tai chi movements. But they do allow you to move at your own pace, and many provide excellent background information on the principles. Here are a few to check out:

1. The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp Mind by Peter Wayne

In addition to simple instructions, this comprehensive book has information on the proven benefits of the martial art. It also delves into some of the more spiritual aspects of the practice in a way that's easy to understand.

2. Tai Chi Illustrated by Pixiang Qiu

Clear instructions and photos make this book a great introduction for older adults. You'll also learn about the discipline's rich history.

3. Tai Chi for Health and Rehabilitation by Andrew Townsend and Dr. Maurice Olfus

This book is geared toward those who want to start the activity in order to experience its health benefits. It contains a section on chair tai chi.

4. T'ai Chi Classics by Waysun Liao

If you want to dive deeper into the principles, this popular text is a good resource. But note that it focuses more on the philosophical elements than on basic technique.

DVDs

A big advantage of viewing a DVD is that you can pause it to catch up when you're behind or feeling lost. Look at these options:

1. Discover Tai Chi for Balance and Mobility

Led by expert Scott Cole, this easy-to-follow DVD focuses on exercises to improve your balance and overall mobility.

2. Tai Chi Fit: IN PARADISE

Master David-Dorian Ross teaches beginner-friendly, basic moves in a beautiful Hawaiian setting.

3. Tai Chi for Life: Gentle Exercises for Seniors & Beginners to Improve Balance, Strength and Health with Dr. Paul Lam

The lessons on this very thorough DVD are taught by a well-known master and founder of the Tai Chi for Health Institute.

4. Tai Chi for Arthritis—12 Lessons with Dr. Paul Lam

Although the focus is on exercises that help with arthritis, this DVD is great for anyone who wants to learn the basics.

5. Gentle, Sitting Tai Chi

This beginner-friendly video can teach you the basics of the seated form of the activity.

Online videos

Many tai chi videos for seniors are available on YouTube. When you're looking for a good instruction video, be sure to check the credentials of the instructor. Here are some examples you might enjoy:

1. 10 Tai Chi Moves for Beginners—14 Minute Daily Taiji Routine—Simple demonstrations of 10 common moves. (Although the demonstrator is standing in water, that is definitely not recommended.)

2. Tai Chi 5 Minutes a Day Module 01—A short and easy routine in a pleasant setting.

3. Seated Tai Chi Exercises for Seniors—You can follow this entire video while sitting down.

4. 36-minute tai chi class—A longer set of exercises for beginners that includes sitting modifications.

Apps

If you have a smartphone, an app can be a portable teaching tool. New developments in technology have made these instructional apps easy to follow. Here are a few to get you started:

1. Tai Chi Fit STRENGTH

This app is free and easy to follow.

2. Tai Chi Trainer XR

Take a virtual reality (VR) class. (You'll need a VR viewer to get the best experience.)

3. 7 Minute Chi

This app offers a free, short, and simple routine. (You can purchase additional classes through the app.)

Reach for Better Health

Tai chi for seniors offers many benefits that can improve your overall quality of life. So why not get started with this peaceful martial art? The information above can put you on the road to better physical, mental, and emotional health.

References

Last updated on November 20, 2019