“Traditional Chinese Medicine” in general leaves quite a bit to be desired in terms of Western scientific backing, making it generally inappropriate for our aging loved ones. However, there is mounting evidence that taiji quan (known in the U.S as Tai Chi) is something anyone who is starting to feel their age should consider. Here are some of the reasons:
The Traditional Chinese View on Effort
The Chinese culture has a very different view of the concept of effort than do Americans. When we think of ‘effort’, we think of exertion; of putting everything you have into a huge surge of work, and in most cases, finishing up exhausted and recovering by taking a vacation or going out on the town. “Work hard, play hard,” the modern wisdom goes; in short, we expect (and work around) burnout.
In China, the words kung fu literally mean ‘hard work,’ but when a Chinese person says those words, what they really mean is devotion. To a Chinese person, ‘effort’ means you spend some time every day deliberately applying yourself to the mastery of your chosen art. And in the Chinese view, if you hurt yourself (even if that just means doing too much of something and burning out) you are doing it wrong. “Pain is no gain,” they say.
In terms of Tai Chi, this means that any traditional teacher will adapt their lessons to fit the abilities of their student, so that the student is not put in danger of self-harm or even of getting tired of doing their routine. This means that finding a good teacher is important, but it also means that almost anyone can do Tai Chi.
The Health Benefits of Tai Chi for Aging Individuals
Since about 2002, there have been several dozen studies establishing a sizable set of benefits that the practice of Tai Chi can potentially provide. Note that none of these are the traditional Chinese standbys of ‘increasing your inner energy’ or ‘achieving inner balance’ or any such thing; they are definitive, measurable benefits that western doctors would find difficult to dismiss. For example:
A study from the University of Massachusetts showed that the hippocampus (the area of the brain most closely associated with memory and learning) of participants of all ages grew after just 8 weeks of daily practice.
Similarly, a study from the University of Florida specifically looking at senior citizens found that practicing Tai Chi thrice weekly for 40 weeks triggered an increase in total brain volume. This is twice impressive; once because it is an accepted fact that seniors’ brains shrink over time, and again because the lowest increase in brain volume among the Tai Chi students was bigger than the largest increase in the control group, which simply walked for the same amount of time.
The University of Michigan found that Tai Chi increases the number of ‘gamma waves’ (not to be confused with ‘gamma rays’) that the brain produces, which have been shown to help people move past ‘stuck thoughts.’
A study performed by a coalition of scientists from New York, Florida, and China showed that Tai Chi practice actually increases the number of active stem cells in the body. Specifically, a type of stem cell called a CD34+ cell, which allows the body to rebuild structures that range from neurons to bones.
The Harvard Medical School established that even seniors with Parkinson’s Disease fall down less than half as often if they regularly practice Tai Chi.
In a massive meta-study performed by Arizona State University and the University of North Carolina, data was harvested that showed Tai Chi has beneficial effects on bone density, cardiopulmonary endurance, cardiovascular disease risk, respiratory function, aerobic capacity, and a number of ‘task tests’; such as getting out of chairs, standing on one leg, and squeezing a hand-grip exerciser.
The Most Important Reason to Consider Tai Chi
The physical effects of Tai Chi are appreciable for just about anyone, but what makes it particularly useful for our aging loved ones are the proven psychological effects. A number of studies performed in France, South Africa, California, Texas, and of course China all reinforce the fact that Tai Chi improves what doctors call self-efficacy. That is to say, the people doing Tai Chi feel more able, which gives them the ability to handle stress more readily, to adapt to novel challenges more easily, and to more easily take control of their own health care.
The psychological benefits alone may be enough reason to encourage seniors to take up the practice of Tai Chi. Along with all of the physical benefits, this exercise might be well worth adopting as a “go-to” for anyone who is struggling from the emotional effects of aging.