Finding Balance: The Benefits of Tai Chi for Seniors and How to Start

Read about the research-backed ways tai chi can improve your health and learn what to expect.

Author: Rachel Gore
Group of seniors doing Tai Chi

Many people have a hard time fitting exercise into their lives. If you’re living with a physical limitation or chronic health condition, it can feel even more challenging to get moving.

One possible solution is tai chi. Tai chi is a gentle and meditative form of exercise that offers several health benefits for seniors. It is low-impact, puts minimal stress on your joints, and can be modified to meet you where you’re at, meaning it may work for you even if other forms of exercise don’t. Even if you already exercise regularly or don’t have any limitations, tai chi offers multiple health benefits worth considering.

Thanks to long-time tai chi practitioners and Hebrew SeniorLife residents Richard Kirsch and Gail Weiss, tai chi’s benefits are on full display at our continuing care retirement community Orchard Cove in Canton, MA. They worked with Orchard Cove staff members to develop a 30-minute tai chi class they teach twice weekly to fellow residents. Richard and Gail’s class has around 15 to 25 regulars.

What is tai chi? 

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial arts form with many health benefits. According to Harvard Medical School, “Tai chi is often described as ‘meditation in motion,’ but might as well be called ‘medication in motion.’”  

The most popular style of tai chi is Yang style, which Yang Luchan created in the early 1800s. Yang style is characterized by slow, sweeping movements, shifting your center of gravity, and controlled breathing.

“It’s not a competitive activity. Whatever you do, however you do it, as long as you’re making an effort to breathe and move, it’s beneficial,” says Gail. 

What to expect in a tai chi class

Tai chi classes are often split into warm-up exercises, tai chi forms, and a form of breath and energy work called qigong (pronounced “chi-gong”). Tai chi forms are a series of connected physical movements that flow continuously until the series ends.

Gail and Richard incorporate slow arm movements into their qigong, but you can also practice qigong with even less movement. Your experience will depend on where you decide to take your class and who your instructor is.

Research on the health benefits of tai chi 

There’s so much research on the health benefits of tai chi for seniors that it’s impossible to pack it all into one blog post. Here is just a handful of the research-backed ways that tai chi can positively impact your life: 

Better balance 

One of the most significant benefits of practicing tai chi, particularly Yang-style tai chi, is that it can improve your balance. “It’s very good for your balance because you’re moving in every dimension. You’re shifting your center of balance when you lower your knees as you start to move,” says Gail.

Fear of falling is among the biggest predictors of falling in older adults. However, research has shown that performing tai chi can reduce the fear of and risk of falling in older adults.

“When we started our class, everybody had to use a chair as a prop to learn to put their weight on one foot. Six months later, the chairs were gone. We now ask newcomers to move into the middle rows so they have movement in all directions that they can mirror, and adjust the tempo of the class to accentuate this,” notes Richard.

Brad Manor, PhD, the director of the Mobility and Falls Research Program at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research, has studied the benefits of tai chi for years. He recently contributed to a systematic literature review and meta-analysis that found that tai chi outperforms conventional exercise in improving functional mobility and balance in healthy older adults. The analysis examined 12 studies involving 2,901 participants.

“One reason tai chi is so effective is because it allows one to safely practice, and improve, whole body movements that are very similar to the movements required to complete our everyday activities,” explains Dr. Manor. 

Enhanced heart health

Many people know that aerobic exercises like running are good for your heart. But did you know that tai chi is too? One study on the effect of tai chi versus aerobic exercise on blood pressure determined that tai chi is better at lowering blood pressure than more intense aerobic exercises in people with heightened blood pressure.

A separate study on tai chi and cardiovascular disease found that tai chi can help regulate blood pressure in adults 50 and older with obesity, improve their heart and lung function, and decrease their risk of cardiovascular and other chronic diseases.

Improved mental health

Tai chi is also great at calming the mind. “I feel wonderful doing it. The movements are gentle. You’re not stressing your joints, but you are moving your joints, and it’s good mentally because you have to concentrate on the patterns,” says Gail.

Research on the effects of different types of tai chi on anxiety and depression in older adults determined that Yang-style tai chi came out on top when it comes to relieving symptoms of anxiety. 

Preserved memory and cognitive function 

According to one study, tai chi seems to improve executive function — specifically, the ability to multitask, manage time, and make decisions — in people without cognitive decline. The same study found that tai chi can slow the progression from mild cognitive impairment to dementia more effectively than other forms of exercise.

Other benefits

The benefits listed here truly are just the beginning. Research has also indicated that tai chi can help with sleep quality, muscle strength, bone density, blood oxygen saturation, flexibility, and more. 

How to get started 

If you’re interested in tai chi but are nervous or on the fence, consider dropping in and observing a class before participating! You might be able to find a class at the local YMCA, a senior center, a community center, or a martial arts gym near you.

Remember to check with your doctor if you have any medical conditions or take any medications that bring up concerns about starting a new exercise routine. Tai chi’s gentle nature means it can work for people with various health conditions and limitations.

“Every one of us adapts tai chi to what our body can do. When I had surgery a few times, I retreated back to some basic tai chi forms, which are the forms I learned how to do originally. When my balance and endurance returned, I extended them again,” says Richard.

Recognizing his need for a gentler form of exercise is what inspired Richard to start tai chi in the first place, though his martial arts journey began long before then. He was a graduate student during the Vietnam War when he realized that there was a real chance the military draft could impact him (which it ultimately did). “I decided I needed to do something about being wimpy, so I started going to jiu-jitsu classes and karate,” he explains.  

He continued to participate in martial arts classes periodically for decades as both a teacher and a student. When his knees started bothering him in his middle-aged years, his sensei broached the topic of transitioning into tai chi as a low-impact alternative. He decided to make the shift and has been practicing it ever since.

Today, modifying tai chi forms as needed is something he and Gail emphasize in their classes. “If you have a medical problem that affects your arm and can’t make a full arm circle, you can hold that arm with your other hand. The same thing applies to your leg. You can grab a chair and start by moving your ankles before you work up to your knees,” Richard adds.

Staying active is made easy at Hebrew SeniorLife  

Hebrew SeniorLife’s continuing care retirement communities Orchard Cove in Canton, MA, and NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham, MA, offer vibrant lifestyles and enriching amenities, including a fitness center with group exercise classes and individualized wellness coaching. Miles of walking trails circle stunning natural environments and offer residents at both locations the opportunity to stay active outdoors and enjoy the best of New England’s four seasons.

Are you interested in exploring senior living options? Connect with us online to learn more.

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About Rachel Gore

Digital Content Specialist

Rachel Gore is a Digital Content Specialist at Hebrew SeniorLife, where she supports Hebrew SeniorLife’s content marketing efforts by writing original content for digital channels, especially the Hebrew SeniorLife blog. Prior to joining Hebrew SeniorLife in 2023, Rachel worked in...

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