How T'ai Chi Improves Your Health

Improve strength, balance and flexibility

Practicing t’ai chi for health is a great way to reduce stress and stay in shape, and it has many other health benefits as well. It originated in China as a martial art thousands of years ago and is popular today as a form of exercise. It can be practiced every day, anywhere, by people of all ages.

T’ai chi, also known as meditation in motion, is practiced throughout the world, though it is more popular in eastern countries such as China. It is relatively simple to learn and doesn't require any special equipment. Because the motions are slow and non-strenuous — although the intensity can vary between styles — t’ai chi is generally suitable for all ages, and can be especially beneficial for seniors seeking a low-impact workout routine.

T’ai chi basics

T’ai chi is a Chinese martial art and energy flow technique that has been practiced for more than 500 years. Unlike traditional martial arts, t’ai chi routines are performed with very slow, deliberate motions designed to focus the mind and the body.T’ai chi is composed of a series of gentle stretching motions in which each posture  is allowed to flow naturally into the next one, rather than being held in one spot. This means that the body is constantly in motion, helping the mind stay focused on the movement.

The solo forms of t’ai chi require the practitioner to keep a straight spine, to breathe abdominally, and to perform leg and arm movements while maintaining balance over the body's center of gravity. Advanced t’ai chi practitioners can learn routines that use weapons, such as swords, but the majority of t’ai chi practitioners perform "open hand" routines.

There are more than 100 possible motions in t’ai chi. Each is named after an aspect of nature or an animal. Some examples include “Grasping Bird's Tail,” “Carry Tiger to Mountain” and “Monkey Offering Fruit.” The rhythmic patterns of the motions help develop a strong sense of inner tranquility, and the disciplined rhythm enables total concentration in the present.

T’ai chi health benefits

There are a number of different styles of t’ai chi, including sun, hu lei, chen, wu shei and yang. Each style has an emphasis on different methods and principles, though all have many health benefits. Practicing t’ai chi for health can lead to:

  • Reduced stress and anxiety levels
  • Improvement of balance, posture, flexibility and muscle tone
  • Relief from pain
  • Improvement of the digestive system
  • Increased energy and concentration
  • Overall feeling of well-being

T’ai chi is also great for improving body awareness. It does not require any specialized equipment and can be practiced in a relatively small space or even outdoors while wearing comfortable clothes that allow you to stretch. T’ai chi can be practiced daily for as little as 20 minutes to improve overall health.

T’ai chi for seniors

Because of the gentle motions of t’ai chi, some styles of the discipline, particularly wu shei, are perfect for senior adults, as well as those with disabilities. It can even be practiced from a wheelchair. T’ai chi is particularly attractive to seniors because it is low impact and provides gentle stretching. Senior practitioners of t’ai chi reap many benefits from this "moving meditation," which forces the mind to focus on precise movements of the body.

One of the most common forms of t’ai chi is the Beijing 24, which is a 24-movement sequence. Many seniors in China and around the world gather in parks to perform this t’ai chi sequence as a group. For seniors with limited mobility, many of the movements can be adapted to seated positions, allowing them to still reap the benefits.

According to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (AAPM&R), t’ai chi can help seniors reduce their risk of falling by improving balance, strength, coordination and posture. Since the average hip fracture can result in more than $16,000 in medical bills, helping to prevent such falls is a major benefit of t’ai chi for seniors.

The AAPM&R also notes that practicing t’ai chi can help to boost seniors' self-confidence. A study sponsored by the National Institute of Aging and published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine concurred, noting that t’ai chi can help seniors regain physical strength that has been lost through inactivity or injury and help them regain confidence.

However, even though t’ai chi is a gentle exercise process, any senior who wants to start a t’ai chi program should contact her doctor to ensure that no underlying medical issues will be adversely affected by the t’ai chi practice.

T’ai chi health classes and DVDs

If you are interested in learning t’ai chi to improve your health, look for classes given by a qualified instructor in your community. Or, to practice t’ai chi in the privacy of your own home, on your own schedule, try out one of the wide range of instructional t’ai chi health DVDs available, such as T'ai Chi Beginning Practice, T'ai Chi Exercises for Seniors or T'ai Chi Daily Practice.

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