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Tai Chi for Seniors

Tai Chi (pronounced tie-chee) is an ancient form of Chinese martial art that combines slow, gentle, continuous movement with meditation and mental concentration that can improve balance, flexibility, coordination and strength and decrease stress in practitioners. Its flowing, non-impact movements make it an ideal form of exercise for seniors, especially those who may be overweight, inactive, or suffer from a disability that limits their mobility. Scientists are now studying the possibility that Tai Chi may help prevent falls, boost immune system functioning, and protect against disease.

The Mandarin term "Tai Chi Chuan" literally translates as "Supreme Ultimate Boxing" or "Boundless Fist." The name T'ai Chi Ch'uan is believed to be derived from the T'ai Chi symbol commonly known in the West as "yin-yang." Tai Chi Chuan is considered a soft style martial art, or one applied with internal power, as opposed to that of hard martial art styles, such as karate. Some call it a form of moving meditation, as focusing the mind solely on the movements helps to bring about a state of mental calm and clarity.

Scientists at the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene have found that Tai Chi offers the greatest benefits to older men and women who are healthy but relatively inactive. Study participants reported greater flexibility, balance and strength three months and again six months after beginning a twice-weekly Tai Chi class. These results refuted earlier research that suggest much longer periods are needed to show improvement in physical functioning.

Shingles is a potentially a painful and debilitating condition caused by the same virus as childhood chickenpox and strikes approximately one third of adults over the age of 60. A recent study at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed that practicing Tai Chi boosted the immunity of study participants to a level comparable to having received the vaccine against the shingles-causing virus varicella zoster. The 25-week study involved a group of 112 adults ranging in age from 59 to 86, half of whom took Tai Chi classes three times a week for 16 weeks, while the other attended health education classes and learned stress management, healthy diet and sleep habits but did not practice Tai Chi. Both groups were given a dose of the shingles vaccine and at the end of the 25-week period, the Tai Chi group exhibited an immunity level two times greater than the health education group. This study confirms the findings of an earlier, more limited study.

Tai Chi's gentle movements increase leg strength and muscle tone and improve balance, making it easier for practitioners to get up from a seated position, navigate stairs, and avoid falls. A recent study, conducted by Jun Hyun Choi, PhD, RN, and colleagues at South Korea's Daewon Science College, included 68 people with an average age of 78 years old. Half of the group took a 12-week Tai Chi course, the other half did not. At the end of the study the group was tested and the researchers found that the Tai Chi group had stronger knees and ankles and improved flexibility and were able to walk longer and more comfortably. The Tai Chi group also fell fewer times during the study. Half of the group who did not do Tai Chi suffered falls during the study compared with just 31 percent of the Tai Chi group.

There are several different forms of Tai Chi, but many experts recommend the Sun method for seniors due to its gentler movements. Look for Tai Chi groups associated with your local senior center, recreation center, gym, or community college. Or, check out this Website to find a Tai Chi group near you. As with any new fitness regime, check with your doctor before beginning Tai Chi.



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