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Thursday, 14 September 2000

Tai Chi for Seniors - Chapter 1

Written by  Arieh Lev Breslow

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Age is venerated in China. The older a person, the more respect he or she receives. The Chinese believe that the elderly come to the point that their lives resonate with the harmony of the universe, the Tao.

If you visit China and go for an early morning stroll in a nearby park, you will see thousands of people doing their morning exercises. Most of these people will be practicing Tai Chi, the dance-like martial art and health exercise. Many are in their seventies and eighties. Some are even older.

Tai Chi is a relatively recent newcomer to the shores of the United States, arriving approximately forty years ago. Each year it has grown in popularity, not surprisingly, among America's older population. Once thought of as a fad, it is not uncommon for family doctors to recommend Tai Chi to their elderly patients. Health clubs, YMCAs and senior centers offer classes. Almost anyone can practice its soft, slow movements with little risk of injury. No special clothing is required and it can be done in a small space, preferably outdoors in the quiet setting of a park.

Tai Chi is flourishing among the over 65 for good reasons. A growing body of scientific evidence demonstrates that it improves general health, reduces stress and prevents falling. The most important study was carried out at Emory University as part of a $2.9 million grant from the National Institute on Aging and the National Center for Nursing Research. The results catapulted Tai Chi into the medical mainstream with this astonishing statistic: Elderly participants over 70 fell 47.5% less than the control group. The study concluded, "Tai Chi can influence older individuals' functioning and well-being significantly."

The Chinese believe that the elderly come to the point that their lives resonate with the harmony of the universe, the Tao.

To those who teach and study Tai Chi, the report's conclusions were not surprising. As a Tai Chi instructor, I witness its contributions to better health almost every day. Anna, one of my students, is a good example. She was 88 years old when I met her. Housebound for a year while nursing her husband, she felt that she had lost much of her mobility. A short walk to her local grocery store had become a terrifying journey. She feared that she would not make it without falling. We agreed to work twice a week in one-hour sessions.

We began with gentle breathing, stretching and meditative exercises. Studies show that stress often proceeds falls. Thinking and worrying about falling can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wanted her to learn to focus her mind so that she could look where she was going, while concentrating on the way her body moved. Body awareness can have a dramatic impact on balance.

I introduced Anna to "Tai Chi walking," a slow, focused form of movement. I asked Anna to imagine that the floor was a frozen lake. With each step she had to walk carefully, checking that the ice would support her without cracking. This encouraged Anna to step forwards cautiously, gradually shifting the weight to her front foot. The clear separation of weight from the back foot to the front strengthened her legs in a natural and safe way, which in turn improved her balance.

Tai Chi can even be taught to those in a wheelchair.

Once she had learned these basics, I began to teach her a shortened form of Tai Chi. The leg movements are similar to the walking exercise but Tai Chi requires even more body awareness. This exercise added more complex elements such as flow, body alignment and unity. It also forced Anna to exercise her memory, because she now had to remember the sequence of movements and their intricacies. In a relatively short time, I witnessed rapid improvement in her strength and balance. The twinkle in Anna's eyes said that she saw it too.

Tai Chi has many other benefits. The elderly are generally more susceptible to colds and flu than the younger population. One finding showed that Tai Chi strengthens the immune system. Dr. Wen Zee, a Chinese cardiologist who now lives in Arizona, reported on a study conducted recently in Shanghai. The researchers selected ten practitioners, between the ages of 56 and 93, with at least twenty years of Tai Chi experience. Blood samples were taken before they did Tai Chi, immediately afterwards and then two hours later. The study revealed that the activating killer cells of the average subject's immune system was higher than those of a young person. Moreover, after they completed the Tai Chi form, their immune systems had grown considerably stronger.

The experiences of my Tai Chi students corroborate Dr. Zee's report. One woman told me that every winter she caught cold, often resulting in bronchitis. Since beginning Tai Chi, she said she rarely got sick.

Heart attacks and strokes are two of the most serious and debilitating illnesses of old age. After sixty, heart attack is the greatest killer of both men and women. According to the MacArthur Foundation study on aging, hypertension or increased blood pressure is the most common cause of both. Interestingly, with regard to heart attacks among the elderly, cholesterol is not as much of a threat as high blood pressure.

The Emory University study mentioned earlier reported that Tai Chi appeared to lower blood pressure. After a 12-minute walk, the Tai Chi group lowered their systolic blood pressure (the higher and the more important of the two numbers) more than the control groups. In another study carried out by the Chinese Sports Editorial Board, Tai Chi practitioners over 60 reduced their resting systolic blood pressure to 134 compared with a sedentary group's count of 154.

Everyone loses bone density after thirty. Osteoporosis is the medical term for an "excessive" loss of bone strength that places its sufferers at risk for fractures. Women are particularly vulnerable. The venerable adage applies here: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Tai Chi can prevent falls, a significant reason for those with Osteoporosis to study Tai Chi. The MacArthur Study prescribes weight-bearing exercises because they can arrest bone loss and even increase bone density. Tai Chi, dance, walking, and lifting weights are specifically recommended.

Osteoporosis can have devastating consequences. Dorothy, a woman in her late 60s, woke up one morning and could not move. She was suffering severe back pain. When her doctor saw the x-rays, he asked her if she had fallen from an upper story of a building. Her spine had collapsed. His prognosis was that she would be confined to a wheelchair for life.

Dorothy refused to lie down and give up. She underwent a standard treatment of physical therapy that provided little improvement. Finally, after searching months for a therapy that would help her, she discovered reflexology. Her pain was reduced considerably. She could walk with difficulty and some pain.

When Dorothy came to me, her legs were weak and she still suffered from pain. I began strengthening her legs with similar exercises to the ones I had taught Anna. I also focused on improving the alignment of her back, neck and spine.

In Tai Chi we encourage students to imagine that their heads are being lifted gently with a string while the lower back relaxes down. When done correctly with a teacher's guidance, the vertebrae can ease into a better alignment. This technique reduced Dorothy's back and leg pain. She still has "good and not-so good days" but she says that Tai Chi and reflexology "saved my life."

Tai Chi has less tangible benefits that are not easily measured. When people study Tai Chi, they slow down, they feel more relaxed and less defensive. Aviva, a 67-year old retiree, explained: "I love the quiet and the beauty of the movements. I feel relaxed."

Another student, a nurse, echoed Aviva's feelings: "It's the peace of mind and the connection to nature that draws me to Tai Chi."

Ruth, a dance therapist, said that she finds the movements challenging, as she tries to bring together her inner self and the outer experience.

Tai Chi health classes tend to be serious yet friendly, and provide an opportunity to meet like-minded people who want to improve their quality of life. In my classes, we take a break and drink tea, laugh, and talk, sometimes about Tai Chi, its philosophy and sometimes about movies we have seen. This practice is not uncommon. Learning with friends can be one of nature's great healers.

The writings of Tai Chi say that the student should "move like a flowing river." Ma Yueh-Liang, one of China's modern Tai Chi masters, inspires people of all ages. An American student asked him what his secret of longevity was. Ma answered with two words: "Never stop!" And, like a river, he did not stop until he passed away this year at 98 years of age, teaching to the last month of his life.

To be continued: "Chapter 2: How To Find The Right Tai Chi Class For You."

Last modified on Friday, 15 April 2011 17:37
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Arieh Lev Breslow

Arieh Lev Breslow is a Tai Chi expert and author of "When Less is More - Using the Mind to Exercise the Body" .

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