Tai Chi for Seniors: Health Benefits and Concerns

Tai chi is a Chinese martial art that has been practiced for centuries. It is classified as an “internal martial art,” as the goal is to develop strength and focus rather than to defeat an opponent.

Tai chi is structured around the flow of energy, known as qi, and combines elements of yin and yang. It’s not exactly synergistic with western medical beliefs and, as a result, the practice can seem a little alien and off-putting to westerners. Regardless, you don’t need to believe in qi to understand the benefits of tai chi.

The slow and considered movements can help you to relax and de-stress. In a sense, it’s like yoga; a moving form of medication that provides both physical and mental benefits. The difference is that you don’t need to sit down, lie down, and perform potentially difficult movements, which means tai chi is perfect for seniors with limited mobility.  

The Styles of Tai Chi

One of the many western misconceptions of tai chi, just like yoga and other eastern practices, is that there is only one form. In fact, there are five main forms of tai chi and they all work differently. Here are three of the most popular varieties:

  • Chen: The Chen style of tai chi is said to date back to the 16th century, making it the oldest variant. It focuses on self-defense more than other form of tai chi.
  • Yang: The style that most people are familiar with, Yang is all about gentle movements and is popular with seniors.
  • Sun: Dating to the middle of the 19th century, this form of tai chi is the newest type and focuses on smooth, low-impact movements.

These are just the main forms of Chinese tai chi. After the practice became popular in the United States, other variations were born, including a Chinese form known as Tai Chi Chih. Sitting Tai Chi is also a senior-focused variation aimed at individuals with limited mobility and balance.

Which form is best for you and which one should you focus on? It doesn’t really matter. The truth is many tai chi classes in America tend to mix and match. The good news is that most of them focus on smooth and gentle movements and if you focus on classes aimed at seniors, this will almost certainly be the case.

Tai chi is not like kung fu. You won’t be asked to perform jumping kicks, nor will you need to kick/punch bags and pads. The focus is on slow and methodical movements designed to get your blood pumping and your muscles moving. 

In many ways, it’s like dancing in slow motion. Unlike yoga, where you are required to hold single positions for multiple seconds, tai chi flows from one position to the next. 

The Benefits of Tai Chi

Tai chi can provide numerous health benefits and is particularly beneficial to seniors and those with limited mobility. 

The benefits of tai chi include:

Cardiovascular Health

Regular exercise is key to maintaining optimal heart health, and low-intensity exercises like tai chi are a great way to get the heart pumping and the blood flowing. Along with walking, it’s one of the few safe exercises for people with heart conditions and mobility issues, so it can play a significant role in improving cardiovascular health.

Reduced Risk of Falling

Practicing tai chi regularly can reduce your risk of falls and injuries by up to 50%. Falls affect millions of Americans every year, leading to endless hospital visits, countless bruises and cuts, and even severe fractures and concussions.

Tai chi helps to build your core and make you more aware of your body. More importantly, it improves balance.

Improved Posture

The older you get, the more your posture suffers, and this is more of an issue now that we spend more of our days hunched over desks and phones. One of the main tenets of tai chi is to always maintain a straight back and, the more you practice, the more comfortable this posture will be.

Over time, you can correct minor posture issues and reduce the risk of developing hunches and spinal issues. It’s not just about aesthetics, either, as posture can impact everything from your mobility to your breathing.

Improved Mental Health and Cognition

Regular exercise is a great boost for your mental health and can also prevent cognitive decline, making tai chi an important practice for individuals with dementia. 

It teaches you to focus on your breath and to relax, which comes in handy when you feel the onset of panic or anxiety. This inward focus also helps with depression and insomnia, while the act of exercising releases feel-good chemicals known as endorphins.

In addition, as tai chi is often performed outdoors in groups of people, it’s a great way to socialize. Our social lives tend to take a hit as we get older. We make fewer friends, lose many of the people we’re close to, and feel more alone and disconnected from people our own age. 

Tai chi classes can connect you to people with similar interests, while simply being outdoors will help to boost vitamin D levels.

How to Get Started with Tai Chi

You can find live tai chi classes at your local YMCA or community center. Links to local classes can also be found on social media. Generally, these classes are conducted with moderately sized groups and cost less than $5 per time.

Starting with a live class is a great way to get accustomed to the practice and to make new friends. Once you’ve gotten used to the exercises, you can start practicing yourself at home, using YouTube videos to move along with the instructor.

You don’t need any special equipment to prepare for a tai chi class. Just wear loose clothes that are suitable for the time of the year (assuming the class is being conducted outdoors) and avoid anything that is too restrictive or uncomfortable.