Tai Chi Chuan
Tai chi chuan literally means “supreme ultimate boxing.” Although it was originally developed as a martial art in China in about 1,200 AD, people everywhere now practice it as a way to improve health, strength, balance, and mental calm. The movements are slow and precise, and particularly focus on the muscles of the lower body. This exercise system has become particularly popular among older adults, because its slow, meditative movements are more accessible to them–even those with some physical limitations.
For older adults with memory impairment, Prof. Chodzko-Zajko counsels that memorizing a long series of highly choreographed forms is only one–and perhaps the least important–aspect of the activity. “The four basic elements of tai chi chuan,” he points out, “are slow movement exercise, breath control, static and dynamic balance, and self-assisted massage.” You can gain benefit from doing repetitions of a single form, so long as it contains these elements.
Like yoga, tai chi chuan has demonstrated some surprising medical benefits. A study at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, (part of NIA’s Frailty and Injuries: Cooperative Studies of Intervention Techniques, or FICSIT, initiative, launched in 1990 to improve physical function in old age) for example, has shown that older adults who practice the system suffer significantly fewer falls than other people in their age group, and many find they’re able to negotiate activities of daily living far more easily.
Despite the slow moving nature of the exercises, practioners also show marked improvement in cardiovascular function. A study at UCLA, soon to be published in the journal Gerontology, suggests this happens through tai chi’s ability to balance the function of the sympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that prepares the body for emergencies via the so-called “fight or flight” response.
Another study at UCLA, which appeared in the April 2007 issue of the Journal Of The American Geriatrics Society, demonstrated that tai chi chuan can actually help older adults avoid getting shingles, a painful condition caused by the chicken pox virus (varicella-zoster) both by increasing natural immunity and by boosting immune response to the varicella vaccine.
Finally, a study done by researchers at Harvard Medical School and the New England School of Acupuncture, published in the October 15, 2004, issue of the American Journal of Medicine, did a randomized, controlled trial that demonstrated people with heart failure experienced improved heart function after 12 weeks of tai chi chuan practice.Tai chi chuan, or alternatively, Tàijíquán, literally means “supreme ultimate boxing.” Although it was originally developed as a martial art in China in about 1,200 AD, people everywhere now practice it as a way to improve health, strength, balance, and mental calm. The movements are slow and precise, and particularly focus on the muscles of the lower body. This exercise system has become particularly popular among older adults, because its slow, meditative movements are more accessible to them–even those with some physical limitations.
Qigong means “cultivating breath.” It is a practice in tradtional Chinese medicine that cultivates the coordination of breathing with particular postures and movements to manage the “energy field” that surrounds the body. It is generally practiced to maintain good health, but some traditional Chinese doctors occasionally use it to help cure medical conditions.
According to Prof. Chodzko-Zajko, qigong is among the most common physical activities you will see among older adults in its countries of origin. “If you visit a public park early in the morning in China or Korea and you see people doing morning exercise, very seldom will you see them doing the highly choreographed movement types that we have come to associate with tai chi,” he says. “Oftentimes they’re doing energy work, where they’re doing slow movements, but they’re not necessarily following a prescribed set of forms…I don’t think there is a consensus about how strictly you have to stick to a particular style or a particular form.”
Like yoga and tai chi chuan, quigong may be an effective way of calming heart palpitations–a hyperawareness of your own heartbeat, which may be brought on by overexertion, illness, alcohol, drugs, or a panic disorder.
However these three systems work, experts all agree on one basic fact about them: each can help reduce stress, which is important in maintaining cardiovascular health. Emotional stress causes you to release the hormone adrenaline from your adrenal gland and noradrenaline from the nerve endings in your heart and blood vessels. This, in turn, makes your heart rate go up, and ultimately causes your blood pressure to rise.
Prof. Chodzko-Zajko emphasizes that each of these activities will work best as part of a broader program that includes other types of exercise. “I’d love to see programs that integrate tai chi chuan and qigong type activities into walking programs or chair-based exercise programs,” he says.
Finally, he emphasizes that these physical activities can play a part in an overarching wellness program that should many six aspects of your life into account, including the physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, environmental, social, and financial. “I think there’s been a growing acceptance that in order to promote quality of life, independence, and active aging, you need to acknowledge these multiple dimensions of wellness. And yoga, tai chi chuan, and qigong are activities that span several of these dimensions.”
This article is brought to you by the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR). AFAR has been at the forefront of a revolutionary approach to the science of healthier aging. AFAR has played a major role in providing and advancing knowledge of aging and mechanisms of age-related disease by providing start-up grants to more than 2,400 early-career scientists. To learn more about AFAR, click here. We also invite you to visit our web site for the latest information on the biology of aging, common diseases of aging and healthy lifestyles.