Tai Chi: The Perfect Senior Exercise
by Cynthia W. Quarta
When I first began my job as the program supervisor at a retirement community, I had been studying dance and martial arts for many years. This experience led me to develop a program of dance and martial arts-based exercises for the senior citizens who participated in my exercise clases. At that time, all of the residents were independent retirees who required little or no assistance with their daily activities. When the facility changed from one for independent seniors to an assisted-living community, I had to reevaluate the entire activities program.
While many of the standard activities were age and condition appropriate, the exercise classes had to be altered dramatically to target the growing number of residents who were dependent on walkers, canes, or wheelchairs. My challenge was to find exercises that accommodated all of the participants, those able to stand for a limited period of time, and those unable to stand at all. In addition, this new program had to be designed in such a way that the purpose of any exercise program (i.e., strengthening, flexibility, improved circulation, fat burning, etc.) was not lost through over modification. What I found was this program resulted in a dramatic change in the health and fitness level of the participants. Tai Chi has proven to be a beneficial form of exercise over the years, and the benefits of age appropriate Tai Chi cannot be overlooked for the growing senior population. Students have come to me with reports of improvements in the range of their arm and shoulder movements, more flexibility in their legs, an increase in lung capacity and fewer falls. At the end of class, all of us are relaxed and refreshed.
One of the most impressive stories from my experience teaching Tai Chi involves Kathleen, an eighty-nine-year-old woman who has lived in an assisted living community for five years. During that time she has been an active participant in the exercise classes, both dance and martial arts-based program and the the seated Tai Chi program. She recounts how active she and her husband were in retirement up until the point at which he became ill. They golfed several times a week and took 4-mile walks each morning before breakfast. She was also an avid gardener, but during the last year of her husband's life all of her time was occupied with his care..
After her husband's death, she spent months straightening out their business and financial affairs. As a result, her own physical condition deteriorated drastically. By the time she moved into the community, she was unable to do many simple tasks for herself such as putting on a coat, reaching for a light switch that was just above shoulder level, or putting curlers in the back of her hair. Though she used no aids such as a walker or a cane, she describes her legs as being "as hard and unyielding to the touch as PVC pipe." Her toes had become completely frozen so that she could not curl them and she was unable to walk the halls of the facility without stopping frequently to rest her legs. She often found herself short of breath walking from her apartment to the dining room or to an activity. After three years of a forty-five-minute dance/martial arts standing exercise class, she noticed an improvement in the flexibility of her arms and shoulders. She was able to reach behind herself to slip her arms into the sleeves of a coat, the light switch in her apartment was no longer out of reach, and she could put curlers in the back of her hair. Oddly enough, however, there appeared to be no marked improvement in the strength or flexibility of her legs and she continued to be both breathless and in pain when walking more than a short distance. Since completing one year in the seated Tai Chi class, this woman is now able to curl her toes, raise her foot onto a ball, pull back her toes and circle her ankles. Additionally, her knee joints are flexible and her feeling of breathlessness is gone. On a recent visit with her son, she informed me that she was able to walk in the mall from store to store without stopping and without pain. Kathleen's story is just one example of how powerful seated exercise can be. Her legs became stronger from seated Tai Chi than they did from the standing dance and martial-arts exercise programs!
Exercise programs that are based on traditional movements in the Yang style of Tai Chi Chuan, can be found in my first book "Tai Chi in A Chair" that was first published in 2001 by Fair Winds Press. This was the first book of it's kind, and includes easy to follow 15 minute routines.
Please consult with your physician or health care provider before starting any new exercise program.