Saturday, 20 April 2013

How Tai Chi Keeps You Healthy As You Age

The practice of Tai Chi, unlike most martial arts and even most exercise programs, is not necessarily a young man's game. In China, the world's most populous nation, most people, from toddlers to octogenarians move through Tai Chi sets daily, just as they have for thousands of years. The fact is that while Tai Chi was developed as a martial art, a new paradigm in self-defense, the Chinese have in fact used it for its health benefits much more than they use it for fighting. 

Older Chinese are mainly conservative traditionalists that have a world view that focuses on internal development over external development, of fixing the problem from the inside, by unblocking and redirecting energy to specific areas than they would trusting external remedies popular in the west. The most popular form of Tai Chi in China, and in the US for that matter, is Yang style because of its relaxed low impact exercises. This style is perfect for older people because it frees blood flow, increases immune responses and is easy on the joints and connective tissues. 

There are a number of other reasons why Tai Chi is so popular with older Chinese and can be so beneficial for older westerners:
  1. Promoting deep breathing is extremely important and becomes more important as we age. Tai Chi promotes and teaches deep breathing and breath control to allow us to harmonize our breathing with our movements.
  2. Relieves stress, depression, anxiety that often come from simply aging and usually come after people are injured or debilitated in some way. The simple, gentle movements, combined with proper breathing, relieve all these symptoms.
  3. Improve lower body and leg strength and improves bone strength. In older people, especially post menopausal women, bone calcium loss is big problem and weakens bones, reducing immune responses as well.
  4. Reduces lower back and arthritis pain
  5. Reduces blood pressure
  6. Teaches mind/body integration
  7. Builds energy reserves by releasing endorphins, the brain chemicals that induce happiness and calm
  8. Improves concentration, memory, balance and flexibility. Concentration and memory are vital and Tai Chi teaches proven techniques for making this process much easier. By building ankle strength Tai Chi improves balance and stability. This can help with many conditions, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and more.

Immune responses are a very large problem for our aging population. Even a simple fractured hip can cause death because of a system responses weakened with age. When a fracture happens a great deal of our bodies resources are rushed that area. In a person with a weaker system, or one slowed with age, this can dangerously deplete resources from other areas. This is why we hear stories about people going to the hospital for a fracture and dying of pneumonia. One two years study conducted by UCLA found that when older people (60+) were given polio vaccines they were more susceptible to contracting shingles. When the immune system reacts to the polio virus it depletes resources. 

Arthritis is the bane of the elderly and is a major cause of stress and depression from chronic pain. While there are medications that relieve the symptoms, most are steroidal and have other side-effects, like reduced immune response, which can be deadly as we have already shown. Even simple tasks, like cleaning the house, ironing your clothing or even buttoning your shirt or tying your shoes is painful. Tai Chi exercises like White Crane Spreads its Wings and Wind Rolls with Lotus Leaves work to reduce the stiffness in the joints. Wave Hands Like Clouds for instance concentrate on the movements of the hands while the rest of the body is doing slow movements in harmony. The focus is on the center of the body, at the waist and our natural energies radiate from there. 

While Yang style is the most widely used of the three main Tai Chi styles the benefits of Wu style for older persons are becoming more and more obvious. The Wu style features very compact arm and leg movements, as opposed to the open, sweeping movements of Chen and Yang styles, and this means very low impact as well. The movements are designed to relax muscle tension and prevent hypertension because there is no hyperextension or hyper flexion of the wrists and the arms never go above the shoulder. 

Similarly, when bending forward at the knee the body will never go beyond the extended big toe. Picture your body as a cross with the crux at the navel. Some styles extend this area out to the reach of the fully extended arms and legs. Wu style however keeps everything close to the body, increasing stability a great deal and building balance with slow, deliberate shifting and stepping.
Dan Kleiman teaches Tai Chi and qigong to adults looking to slow down, relax, and improve their health. Try more of these practices through Dan's free email-based course and you will have more energy in the next 30 days than you’ve had in the last year.

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