Successful Aging: Tai Chi boosts the aging brain and body
I wrote last month about some of the ways physical exercise can help our brains, as well as our bodies, age successfully. I’m continuing that theme with a look at Tai Chi, the ancient Chinese martial art that has gained worldwide popularity in recent decades.
Although people of all ages practice Tai Chi, it is particularly suitable for the aging population, from those low on the physical activity scale to accomplished athletes. Practitioners can study for a lifetime but novices can realize benefits immediately.
The relative ease of learning basic Tai Chi movements has long been cited as a reason for its popularity among seniors, but there’s more to it. Tai Chi’s slow, low-impact movements emphasize deep breathing and a continual shifting of body weight that promote a sense of relaxed awareness. In addition, the postures’ fanciful names like “Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane,” and “White Crane Spreads its Wings” engage the mind in active imagery that aids memory. Learning Tai Chi — a few postures or a longer sequence of forms — is fun because it is interesting.
Physical benefits of Tai Chi practice among the older population are well established. Cardiorespiratory improvements like those resulting for more obviously aerobic exercise, including reduced heart rate and blood pressure, have been proven. Another benefit is better oxygen metabolism and delivery to all parts of the body, including the brain, which uses about 25 percent of our oxygen.
Many people who do Tai Chi, whatever their ages, are in excellent physical condition, but this exercise method is also valuable in rehabilitation and in helping prevent or reverse frailty. In the 1990s, the National Institute on Aging sponsored a group of studies to identify methods of reducing falls and bone fractures in aging adults. Researchers reported improved balance, postural stability and a significant reduction in falls and the fear of falling after as little as 10 weeks of Tai Chi practice.
This is a sampling of research I cited in my master’s thesis 10 years ago. Inspired to go to graduate school for my midlife crisis, I discovered the growing body of research connecting physical exercise with cognitive health. This led me to undertake a study that showed reaction time improvements in a group of retirement community residents after 10 weeks of Tai Chi. Reaction time and other measures of processing speed may indicate the overall health of the central nervous system.
Since then, I have taught many adult Tai Chi classes — and am teaching it to kids for the first time this fall. My class, “Play Like Dragons in the Clouds” at Sopris Elementary School in Glenwood Springs, is part of Roaring Fork School District’s Enrichment Wednesdays program.
This prompted me to consider another kind of connection, between developing young brains and preserving aging ones. Some of my young students are clearly “into” the class, eager to learn the animal poses. But I was surprised by how much those who appeared less attentive nonetheless absorbed. Some of these more boisterous kids came back the second week excited to show me that they could do the Tai Chi walk and other moves.
It is too soon to know if the “Dragons” class will yield lasting benefits and if any of the kids will stay with it. But the potential is there, and working with young people sent me back to one of my favorite books about learning, “Smart Moves — Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head,” by Carla Hannaford, Ph.D.
A teacher and neuroscience researcher, Hannaford discusses how Tai Chi and other integrated movement systems “help the young to get ready to learn and the elderly to maintain active thinking and memory.”
When I started this class three weeks ago, I was fortunate to meet Elizabeth Latham, a 65-year-old teacher who started Tai Chi classes three years ago with John Norton at New Castle Fitness Center.
“It completely changed my life,” Latham told me. A tremor disorder and congenital joint abnormalities had left her with a limp and poor balance. “I fell at least once a day,” she said. She reports improved balance and explained that the “little limp” she still exhibits is “more of a habit than a need.”
She also pointed out that Tai Chi practice has reduced anxiety, improved her memory and overall clear thinking. She also said it has helped relieve anxiety and depression, and she can get immediate relief in stressful situations by doing simple Tai Chi moves.
The Dragons class and Latham’s experience both illustrate how Tai Chi is all about connections: body and mind, young and old, developing and preserving. I encourage you to try a class and make it a part of your successful aging.
Angelyn Frankenberg is a wellness coach and writer living in Carbondale. She has a master’s in physical education and an undergraduate degree in music.
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