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)
Renowned Tai Chi exponent Michael Gilman explains why it can be useful for elderly adults. He says that it helps strengthen the body and stabilize the blood pressure. The veins and arteries open up as internal tension are alleviated, which also aids circulation. This in turn improves sharpness of vision and hearing. As a consequence, the lymph system gets boosted, reducing the occurrence of common cold, flu, bacterial and other infections. One of the common complaints of the Baby Boomers is joint and bone weakness, which can be reversed through Tai Chi. Bones and the whole skeletal system also get strengthened. In other words,
“Joints are exercised, without the damaging effects of heavy impact. Bones are strengthened because the slow, relaxed movements are done in a semi-squatting stance, and the weight is placed on one leg at a time. Breathing is slow, relaxed, and controlled in Tai Chi practice so the lungs can clear and function at their maximum. The mind is focused at all times on the here and now, eliminating internal chatter and distractions. One becomes present and able to see a situation more clearly. Posture is improved by strengthening and aligning the spine, thus eliminating many back problems.” (Gilman, 2008, p.30)
Another area of proven results is with respect to blood pressure and hypertension. It was previously believed by Western physicians that an apparently gentle exercise like Tai Chi would not be effective in moderating blood pressure. But studies have shown that the efficacy of Tai Chi in lowering blood pressure in older adults is comparable to the effects of moderate aerobic exercise. As per Dr. Deborah R. Young’s presentation to the American Heart Association, a 3 month Tai Chi program for senior citizens resulted in reducing their “average systolic blood pressure by 7 millimeters of mercury, compared with an average of 8.4 millimeters of mercury in the aerobic exercise group.” (Krucoff, 1998, p.52) Comprehensive research is now emerging that practicing Tai Chi regularly can bring enduring benefits for senior adults, “including a reduced risk of falling and a significant improvement in quality of life. Tai chi is now being used in some cardiac rehabilitation programs and by people with diseases such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.” (Krucoff, 1998, p.52) Neurological conditions to which the Baby Boomers are especially vulnerable, including Alzhiemer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis are less likely to occur to regular practitioners.
Finally, one of the major concerns for older adults is their susceptibility for accidental falls. This is due to a weakening of their ability to balance. Tai Chi can help by improving balance and flexibility. Tai Chi is also known to reduce stress levels in practitioners. This fact is particularly salient, as two thirds of all illnesses suffered by Americans are related to stress (and a significant percentage of patients are Baby Boomers). According to a study conducted in 2004 by the magazine Medicine & Health Science in Sports and Exercise, older adults may want to consider taking up Tai Chi, as the results indicate that “Tai Chi training is an effective strategy for preventing falls among people in their late 60s and early 70s. It can help people in this age group sustain and improve their balance control, thus making them less likely to experience debilitating falls. (JOPERD, 2004, p.5)