LOUISVILLE Americans today live almost twice as long as our ancestors born prior to 1900. Unfortunately, many elders now spend the last 25–30 years of their lives burdened with chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, depression, neurological disorders, and osteoporosis. For the healthy, however, the years beyond age 50 can be the most enjoyable time of their lives. After years spent gaining an education, working, and raising children, healthy elders can focus on hobbies, travel, learning, and spending time with loved ones. Studies of very healthy elderly people around the world show they share certain behaviors. They tend to eat a mostly Mediterranean type diet — mostly plant-based, whole foods with fish as the primary source of animal protein. They are not overweight or obese. They don’t consume tobacco or excessive amounts of alcohol. They are physically active. Most importantly, they have low amounts of stress and high amounts of love and purpose. All these lifestyle traits together give the best chance of truly happy golden years.
Tai chi, an ancient martial art, is an excellent way to promote wellness in mind, body, and spirit at any age. Because it is a gentle form of exercise, tai chi is particularly suited for older people. Tai chi embodies the concept of yin and yang – balancing the polar opposite components of our nature to produce health, happiness, and harmony. Qigong exercises involve various movements and breathing techniques to improve the flow of “qi,” or life force, throughout the body. Tai chi and qigong are often practiced together.
Tai chi forms are a precise sequence of gentle flowing movements combined with controlled breathing. In order to appreciate the complexity and beauty of the forms, it is best to observe a skilled practitioner. Lloyd Kelly, a tai chi master who teaches classes for KentuckyOne Healthy Lifestyle Centers, can be seen performing in the following YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fffqSlcBQ3k.
Practicing tai chi sharpens focus, clears the mind, improves balance and strength, and is simultaneously relaxing and energizing. There are numerous studies demonstrating the heath benefits of tai chi for a long list of health problems, including Parkinson’s disease, heart failure, menopause symptoms, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, hypertension, chronic obstructive lung disease, stress, and anxiety.
Dr. Paul Lam, director of the Tai Chi for Health Institute, has developed specific tai chi programs for fall prevention, arthritis, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and back pain. The Arthritis Foundation certifies tai chi instructors through Dr. Lam’s training programs.
In addition, tai chi classes provide an opportunity for socialization and camaraderie. The tai chi greeting sets the tone for the classes: The open right hand is placed on the fisted left hand with the thumbs outside, in front of the heart. The open hand symbolizes friendship, the fist symbolizes strength, and the thumbs symbolize humility.
Primary care physicians, geriatricians, orthopedists, neurologists, and pain management specialists can recommend tai chi to their patients backed by a large body of scientific evidence. Regular practice of tai chi can decrease the need for pain medications, antihypertensive drugs, anxiolytics, and antidepressants, decrease the risk of falls, and improve mobility, cognition, and mood. Tai chi instructors certified by the Arthritis Foundation are trained to avoid the risk of injury and recognize when students exhibit problems indicating the need for medical evaluation.
“The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, & Sharp Mind,” 2013 Harvard Health Publications, by Peter M. Wayne, PhD, is an excellent text for those wishing to explore in depth the scientific evidence regarding tai chi.
The following websites also provide nice overviews of the health benefits of tai chi:
The Arthritis Foundation: http://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/exercise/workouts/other-activities/tai-chi-arthritis.php
Tai Chi for Health Institute http://taichiforhealthinstitute.org
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Holistic Medicine https://nccih.nih.gov/health/taichi http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-health-benefits-of-tai-chi
Deborah Ann Ballard, MD, MPH, is a an internal medicine specialist with KentuckyOne Health Primary Care and Healthy Lifestyle Centers and is certified by the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine.
KentuckyOne Healthy Lifestyle Centers Integrated Medicine250 E. Liberty Street, Suite 102 Louisville, KY 40202 502.581.0110