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Want energy? Better balance? Try Tai Chi

Exercise and Fitness | Aging Well | April 13, 2018
Age-old Chinese exercise can work wonders

When many of us pre-millennials think about workouts, we think of aerobics. (ala Jane Fonda in legwarmers, perhaps?)

Aerobic exercise—the kind that raises your heart rate—is great, if you can do it.

But if that’s not realistically in the cards for you anymore—if or you just want a change of pace—consider tai chi.

Pronounced TIE-CHEE, this ancient type of exercise is a set of slow and gentle movements. Studies have shown it can work wonders for people of all ages, with benefits such as:

  • Healthier Posture
  • Stronger Balance
  • Improved Strength
  • Enhanced Joint Function
  • Reduced Stress
  • Better Breathing

Suman Barkhas, a tai chi master instructor, offers the practice as part of the therapies for heart patients at the Oregon Heart and Vascular Institute on the campus of PeaceHealth’s hospital in Springfield, Oregon.

“Tai chi is a set of very gracious, consistent flowing movements done in a choreographed sequence,” he says. “It’s referred to as ‘moving meditation.’” It involves moving your hands, arms, legs, feet and torso.

“It takes practice and concentration, bringing both mental and physical aspects to the exercise, which is why it’s slow,” he says.

Barkhas also teaches yoga, which also has gentle qualities. But the two practices are different. Yoga poses are often done on the floor. By comparison, tai chi is done while you’re standing or seated.

“Tai chi is easier for people who don’t want to get down on the floor,” he says. “It’s much simpler and it’s easy to start and then work up to more complex movements,” he says.

Most of his students notice a difference in how they feel after just one or two one-hour classes. They’re finding peace and awareness as well as better physical balance and function, he notes. Improvements are especially dramatic after eight to 12 weeks.

One of his longtime tai chi students, Ethel Allen, heartily concurs. “I’m sure tai chi has kept me more agile and active. It’s a very good exercise for older people because it keeps all of the muscles and joints working.”

Ethel is 98. She does tai chi twice a week and goes to exercise class in her community center twice a week. She lives on her own in a three-bedroom apartment, still taking care of most of her own housekeeping. And while she gives a nod to her family’s good genes for her longevity, she feels tai chi has made a difference in her life since starting it 18 years ago. “Tai chi is good for balance and the entire body.”

As a practice, tai chi encourages you to breathe and focus your mind and energy. That might be part of the reason it is such a help for those with heart conditions, Parkinson’s Disease and other chronic health issues.

It’s an especially positive option for people who are getting older. One study showed that practicing tai chi twice a week for 12 weeks reduced falls by 50-55 percent. Barkhas has one student who is 98 years young. He says she’d probably cite her 18-year tai chi practice as one of her secrets to aging so well.

So, how do you get started?

“This type of exercise is an easy one to start for someone who has no exercise routine,” says Barkhas. Here are some tips to begin practicing:

  • Notice your posture.
  • Be aware of your breath.
  • Focus on your movement.
  • Check out a video online.
  • Try out a class near you.

While you can do tai chi anywhere, by yourself, there are good reasons to join a class—especially when you’re starting out.

“The community of the class adds to the value of the exercise,” he says. “My students say coming to tai chi gives them a different environment where they feel calmness, and find it easier to watch their breath and movement. For some people, it’s not as easy to find that at home.”

Learn more about tai chi.

Before starting any exercise program, be sure to talk with your doctor about precautions you should take. Ask your local community center about classes near you.

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