Tai Chi Moves Seniors into Healthful Positions


     Source: Tufts University

A change of pace

If fitness walking is a little too run-of-the-mill, try Tai Chi. Aside from being trendy, this low-impact Chinese exercise apparently is good for you! Researchers reported in a recent Annals of Behavioral Medicine that Tai Chi exercises helped seniors improve their physical functioning.

Ninety-six healthy, but inactive adults ages 65 to 96 were assigned to either a 6-month Tai Chi class or a control group. Those in the control group were instructed to maintain their current physical activities and were promised a four-week Tai Chi class at the end of the study. Both groups completed a physical activity assessment at weeks 1, 12, and 24. The assessment measured their ability to perform an array of activities, from vigorous exercise like running to tasks such as carrying groceries, walking up stairs or dressing.

Those assigned to the Tai Chi class met 2 times per week for 60 minutes. Each session consisted of a 15-minute warm-up, 30 minutes of Tai Chi, and a 15-minute cool-down. The volunteers were also encouraged to practice at home.

Exercise made a difference

In the baseline physical functioning assessment, about 60% of the volunteers reported some physical limitation in moderate-to-vigorous activities and about 25% reported difficulties with activities of daily living (eating, dressing, bathing).

At the end of the study, more than half of those enrolled in the Tai Chi class who had reported functional limitations at the start of the study indicated improvement. This is consistent with other studies showing Tai Chi to be a useful exercise for seniors -- most notably, in reducing falls. There was some improvement also noted in the control group, but much less than in the Tai Chi group.

How does it work?

Tai Chi combines balance, flexibility, strength, and aerobic exercises through slow, graceful movements. Each of these aspects of fitness contributes to overall health. Improved balance can minimize the risk of falling, while flexibility enables you to reach into the top cupboard. Good leg strength makes it easier to get up from a sitting position, and strong lungs mean you can walk without getting winded.

While each of these aspects of fitness can be gained through other activities, Tai Chi is particularly well suited for older individuals because it is a non-impact exercise.

East meets west

In China, it is not unusual to see individuals or groups practicing their Tai Chi -- rolling their arms and posturing themselves into various positions -- in local parks or other outdoor spaces. In the United States, however, you're more likely to find the same motions going on at a YMCA, senior center, or adult education class. Like acupuncture and other traditional Chinese remedies, Tai Chi is proving to be a useful adjunct to western medicine.


  • An evaluation of the effects of Tai Chi exercise on physical function among older persons: a randomized controlled trial. F. Li, P. Harmer, E. McAujey,  et al., Ann Behav Med., 2001, vol. 23, pp. 139--146