Tai Chi is an ancient healing art that has been used for centuries to help promote the flow of energy throughout the body. A type of alternative medicine that originated in China, Tai Chi is routinely used in the United States as a form of complementary and alternative medicine. It is a practice that relies on the mind-body connection to help create a healthy balance and improve overall health. Referred to as “moving meditation” by many health professionals, most practitioners support the use of Tai Chi by elderly individuals to help improve both their physical health and emotional well-being.
One of the greatest benefits of Tai Chi for the elderly is that even individuals who have physical limitations can practice this ancient healing art. Because it is comprised of a series of slow, relaxed movements, Tai chi is a non-strenuous activity that will not put added strain on weakened muscles. Tai Chi movements help encourage proper posture and rely on constant gentle movements that force the individual to concentrate and breathe deeply, two important techniques that are often overlooked in the elderly community.
There have been numerous studies conducted in recent years on the benefits of Tai Chi. Although research points to Tai Chi’s positive health effects in a variety of groups, some of the most promising results have been observed in elderly patients.
Tai Chi may be best known for its ability to decrease the sensation of pain in elderly individuals. As people age, they often become more sedentary. As a result, they can suffer from joint stiffness, muscle atrophy, weakness, a limited range of motion and loss of balance. The combination of these conditions often leads to the development of pain in bones, muscles and joints. This can lead to difficulty with simple, everyday tasks such as getting in and out of bed. Many elderly patients report that they experience varying degrees of pain with simple activities such as taking a shower or getting dressed. The gentle yet steady motion of Tai Chi is intended to develop better muscle tone, improve flexibility and strengthen weak muscles without causing additional strain to the body. Elderly patients who engage in Tai Chi can begin to experience decreased pain in as little as two weeks. Some elderly patients have been able to discontinue the use of pain medications after just four weeks of Tai Chi.
Depression is a common condition that affects a large percentage of the elderly population. Elderly individuals living in assisted living facilities and nursing homes often report symptoms of depression to their counselors and nurses. In addition to feelings of loneliness and despair, many elderly people are plagued with a variety of medical conditions that result in chronic pain. All of these factors can contribute to depression. Tai chi can help fight depression in a variety of ways. It encourages individuals to get up and get moving, often in a group setting that allows them to interact with others. Not only are they getting the benefits of exercise, but they are forming new relationships, both of which can minimize depression. Tai Chi can relieve stress, reduce anxiety and improve sleep, all of which can aid in the treatment of depression.
Tai Chi can be especially helpful in easing arthritis symptoms in elderly patients. The gentle movements and simple motions make it a low impact exercise that will not further aggravate arthritis symptoms. Recommended by the Arthritis Foundation, Tai Chi helps loosen joints and improve range of motion in elderly arthritis patients. Many of the Tai Chi movements focus on improving flexibility in the knees, one of the most common parts of the body affected by arthritis. In addition, the movements that focus on the upper body help to stretch the muscles of the shoulders and arms, resulting in improved range of motion and increased flexibility. When elderly patients experience improved range of motion and more flexible muscles, a decrease in painful arthritis symptoms usually follows.
The art of Tai Chi is based on the theory of deep breathing. When performing Tai Chi movements, individuals must participate in uniform breathing that focuses on slowly exhaling through the mouth. This type of breathing helps to release stored up tension in the muscles. Elderly patients who practice Tai Chi regularly can benefit from improved overall health as a result of deep breathing, which improves lung function, respiration and the rate of oxygen flow.
Tai Chi is believed to have powerful stress reducing properties. Because the technique is so closely related to meditation, the positive health effects that occur as a result of the mind-body connection are also very similar. When performing Tai Chi movements, feelings of stress and anxiety are significantly reduced, as is muscle tension and mental distress. This can lead to a decrease in blood pressure that can last for several hours after the exercise is performed. Elderly individuals who participate in regular Tai Chi sessions can see a decrease in blood pressure after just a few weeks.
Many elderly individuals complain of having racing thoughts, an inability to concentrate and high stress levels. This can be a result of illness, pain, loneliness, fear and general concerns about growing old. Tai Chi gives elderly patients a platform for releasing pent up emotional stress. The focus on proper breathing combined with the Tai Chi movements can improve mental clarity by engaging areas of the brain that may not have been used otherwise.
Elderly patients often have poor balance and, as a result, may suffer from excessive falls and injuries. Many of the movements in Tai Chi focus on rotary motions that shift the body from one side to the other. This shifting engages muscles that would not normally be used during everyday activities such as walking, showering and dressing. By increasing strength in those muscles that are not normally used, they help improve balance by strengthening their as well as their hips. Stronger hips and a strong core lead to better balance and less falls.
In the same way that it helps to improve balance, Tai Chi is an excellent exercise for improving lower body strength. The elderly often suffer from hip fractures, which can have a devastating effect on overall health. By performing Tai Chi movements that focus on the lower body, elderly patients can strengthen their leg muscles, improve core strength, increase their range of motion and exercise without putting strain on delicate knee and ankle joints.
Individuals of all ages have reported a significant increase in energy after performing Tai Chi. This is especially important for elderly individuals who often feel lethargic. Elderly patients can suffer from fatigue for a variety of reasons, including illness, poor eating habits, medication and depression. Tai Chi not only can help improve all of those conditions, but can raise energy levels as a result of the increased oxygen supply that occurs from the combination of movements and deep breathing.
One of the most common complaints expressed by elderly individuals is poor sleep quality. Insomnia is often treated with sedative medications that may not work, or worse, can have dangerous side effects. Many elderly patients who participate in regular Tai Chi exercise report some improvement in their quality of sleep. Although the reason is for this is unknown, it is believed to result from the improved overall health that occurs with Tai Chi, especially the reduction in pain that many experience when practicing Tai Chi.
(For more information on improving sleep, read 6 Tips To Better Sleeping At Night.)