The benefits of Tai Chi practice, especially for the aging population

Tai Chi Chuan (usually shortened to Tai Chi) is a traditional Chinese practice, that involves both physical and mental exercise.  Compared to popular martial arts such as Karate and Kung-Fu, Tai Chi is a slow motion stretching and boxing routine. “Instead of focusing on quick, powerful, and vigorous movements for self-defense or attacking actions like those in other martial arts, tai chi emphasizes on graceful skills and movement patterns.” (Wozny, 2007, p.34)  Originally developed and practiced in China, Tai Chi has now travelled to distant shores and is embraced by all age-groups.  Here in the United States too, Tai Chi is gradually gaining in popularity as a refreshing and rejuvenating activity that does not require strenuous physical exertion.  Renowned for its health and spiritual benefits, Tai Chi is particularly suitable for the Baby Boomers generation.  There are several mechanisms through which Tai Chi provides health benefits to practitioners.

“According to Qu (1986), there are several reasons that tai chi practitioners experience health and fitness benefits. First, participants concentrate very hard on their performance, thereby excluding external distractions and generating a sense of internal peacefulness. Second, the motion of tai chi is slow, smooth, and graceful, which facilitates mental and muscular relaxation while increasing range of motion.” (Yan, 2005, p.61)

While practitioners vouch for Tai Chi’s health benefits, scientific research based on controlled studies do not give unanimous results.  For example, Gong et al. (1981) did not find important physiological changes in practitioners above the age of 35 (evaluated using heart rate, blood pressure, and electrocardiogram parameters).  On the other hand, research by Meyer (1991) and Qu (1986) found that regular and rigorous practice of Tai Chi leads to improvement in the cardiovascular system.  This fact is particularly relevant for the Baby Boomers as cardiac disorders are most prevalent in this group.  Researchers have also identified psychological benefits associated with the practice, including reduction in “levels of tension, depression, anger, fatigue, confusion, mood disturbance, and anxiety, while increasing vigor”. (Yan, 2005, p.61)  Making a comparative analysis with modern western psychotherapy, Suler (1991) concluded that Tai Chi is effective in terms of “simplicity, harmony, balance, and dynamic interactions between the human body and its environment.” (Yan, 2005, p.62)  Hence a daily Tai Chi regimen for the Baby Boomers will help improve their overall quality of life.

Another reason why Tai Chi Chuan is useful for elderly people is that it serves a purpose beyond self-defense.  Since elderly people are more inclined towards spirituality than younger adults, Tai Chi can easily tap into this natural tendency of theirs.  For example, apart from being a health and wellness practice, Tai Chi also doubles up as a meditative art.  Moreover, during much of Tai Chi’s history as a martial art, it was integrated into Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) system.  Since TCM theory is founded on the idea of balance in all aspects of lifestyle, physical exercise was also prescribed as a way of maintaining wellness, curing illness and strengthening the body and mind.  This way, Tai Chi fits the TCM model perfectly.  Underlying the multiple facets of Tai Chi is the interconnectedness of physical, mental and spiritual processes. (Gilman, 2008, p.30)

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