Why Tai Chi Makes Sense for the Elderly

By Neil Wagner

A new study suggests Tai Chi may provide the benefits of strength training without the drawbacks for the heart.

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Tai Chi may be a better exercise option for the elderly than typical exercises are. That's because typical exercises tend to stiffen arteries, while Tai Chi may make arteries more flexible.

Arterial flexibility - the ability of an artery to expand or contract as blood pressure changes - is an indicator of cardiovascular health. The more flexible the arteries are, the better one's overall cardiovascular health generally is. Poor arterial flexibility is a predictor of impending heart and circulation problems.

While effective at increasing muscle strength, a number of studies have shown that exercises that improve muscle tone also lead to stiffening of major arteries.

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Exercises that improve muscle tone and combat the muscle wasting of aging are often collectively called strength training. They include working with weights, sit-ups and pushups, and swimming. While effective at increasing muscle strength, a number of studies have shown that they also lead to stiffening of major arteries. This is particularly important in the elderly, whose arteries naturally tend to stiffen with age. Exercise that strengthens muscles without stiffening arteries would be preferable. And Tai Chi may fill the bill.

The current study didn't directly test Tai Chi. What it did was compare the health of two similar groups of people in their 70s, one who had been regularly practicing Tai Chi and one who hadn't. The Tai Chi group showed greater flexibility in both large and small arteries (by over 40 percent), as well as greater muscle strength in their knee extensors and flexors. They also had lower blood pressure.

This doesn't show that Tai Chi was the cause of these benefits, but it does hint that Tai Chi can both strengthen muscles and improve arterial flexibility.

Tai Chi is a gentle form of exercise that's been in use in China for over 2,000 years. It's been described as meditation in motion. Despite its long history, it's only recently come under the scrutiny of Western science. Specific studies have shown that practicing Tai Chi improves symptoms of people with arthritis and Parkinson's disease. Other studies on a more general population hint at benefits ranging from pain relief and stress reduction to lowered blood pressure and an improved feeling of overall well-being.

Tai Chi requires no special equipment and can be performed indoors or outdoors, alone or in groups. So it works both for people who prefer exercising as a social activity and for those who prefer exercising alone in the comfort of their home.

And while this study offers no proof of the benefits of Tai Chi, it's one of a growing number that suggests Tai Chi benefits both the body and the mind.

An article on the study was published in the The European Journal of Preventive Cardiology and will also appear in a future print edition of the journal.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/06/why-tai-chi-makes-sense-for-the-elderly/258022/