Tai Chi for Independence for Older Adults

One of the most important things older adults would like to do is maintain their independence. Independence allows them to stay in their own homes, drive and engage in activities in and around their homes without relying on others for mobility and mental acuity. Unfortunately, old age often comes with chronic medical conditions which may make older adults dependent persons. Apart from medical conditions, age-related deterioration in balance, strength, flexibility, physical endurance and proprioception may also lead to a loss of independence. However, that does not have to be the case. Exercise can improve or prevent certain physical conditions and maintain older adults’ independence. That is why we recommend Tai Chi for independence for older adults.

As we age we lose muscle fibers or they decrease in size. We lose our postural stability and our proprioception slowly becomes impaired. Apart from physical changes, we also undergo mental changes. Changes in the mind (such as decreases in neurotransmitters) lead to changes in the body since the mind and body communicate in order to perform daily functions. This also impairs our ability to react to our environment. These and several other age-related changes put us at a higher risk for falls. Falls are a leading cause of injury in older adults and often lead to hospitalization, loss of mobility, fear of mobility and therefore a loss of independence.

Exercise has been shown to reduce or prevent some age-related deterioration. “Upper and lower body musculoskeletal fitness is important in executing many normal everyday activities such as household chores, carrying groceries, lifting objects and picking up grandchildren.” Exercise may also improve range of motion, flexibility and prevent chronic pain associated with a decrease in either of the two. Further, it may lead to development of larger, stronger muscles and  increased enzymes for the conversion of nutrients into energy for your body cells. Additionally, exercise increases the “sensitivity of the receptors present on ligaments, joint capsules and muscles.” This is thought to improve the communication between your brain and your body and promote your ability to control your posture.

Tai Chi is the perfect exercise for older adults who would like to remain independent. Studies have shown that Tai Chi improves proprioception, which is the sense of your body position and movement. This allows you to respond to your environment, such as avoiding objects you may trip on, and reacting to maintain your balance when you are about to fall. Tai Chi also improves your strength and balance as it is a weight-bearing exercise. Shifting your weight from one leg to another increases your bone density to prevent breakage as well as strengthens your ankles, knees and the muscles in your lower extremities. It also allows you to transition from one movement to another and maintain your balance. Dysfunctional movements can disrupt simple daily activities like moving backwards to sit in a chair, standing up and balancing one leg as you lift the other one off the ground to move forward.

Additionally, Tai Chi strengthens and improves the mind-body connection. “During practice, a great amount of concentration and coordination among different body parts is required. The movements carried out by [Tai Chi] practioners are very slow. It can be argued that this could enhance the sensory-motor process and improve the proprioceptive system.”

If you would like to develop maintain your physical fitness and mental acuity so you can remain independent, do Tai Chi. Unlike other forms of exercise, it is low-impact, can be done anywhere, is accessible to people with varying levels of physical abilities (including those who can only exercise in a chair). Given its accessibility and adaptability, you may be concerned that it is not effective. However, as explained, it increases strength, flexibility, bone density, mental sharpness and proprioception. If you can stay on your feet, and complete daily functional activities like sitting, standing, reaching up for objects, walk on uneven surfaces, you are very likely to remain independent. Tai Chi may be able to help you to achieve this goal.

Photo by Julien Belli License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Photo by Julien Belli
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Sources:
Effects of Tai Chi Exercise on Muscle Strength, Balance, Flexibility and Bone Mineral Density of Community Dwelling Elderly Women
So, Heeyoung; Park, Insook; Song, Rhayun; Kim, Hyunli; Ahn, Sukhee.

Effect of tai chi on musculoskeletal health-related fitness and self-reported physical health changes in low income, multiple ethnicity mid to older adults
James Manson, Michael Rotondi, Veronica Jamnik, Chris Ardern, Hala Tamim.

http://www.kmu.edu.tw/~sportsmed/Wu/Chinese%20Journal%20of%20Integrative%20Medicine%201.pdf

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