Many of us have been making a list of New Year's resolutions, with losing weight and exercising more being two of the most common. But what if you can't keep up with the usual sports or gym classes because
of aging or other issues? Fortunately - just in time for the new year - Australia's Natural Health Magazine has put out an antiaging special issue which talks about how tai chi may be the right exercise for you.
Tai chi is based on some forms of Chinese martial arts, and may be over a thousand years old. However, it is not just for reclusive monks. Research from multiple countries has suggested that tai chi can prevent falls, restore balance and increase bone density, all problems that come with aging. For example, a study found that older practitioners of tai chi, who had an average of seven years experience, had the same balance skills as younger volunteers! This wasn't during normal conditions, but instead volunteers were asked to rotate their whole heads and bodies for one minute, which is meant to impair balance. Other research has shown that tai chi fans have superior balance to age-matched controls, with less body sway, greater confidence and faster reaction times when asked to shift their body weight. Because of all of these findings in favour of tai chi for older adults, the editor of Age and Aging stated, "Perhaps the time has come to encourage tai chi more widely in the older population in general and in our patients at risk of falls in particular."
Perhaps improving your cardiovascular health is one of your goals. Recent research published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology suggested that tai chi can help those who practice it regularly improve muscle strength and cardiovascular health. Volunteers who practiced the art were found to have both stronger knee muscles and better elasticity of the arteries, compared to non-practitioners. Both the average large and small artery compliance significantly increased, by 26.2% and 17.9% respectively. As the Natural Health Magazine special stated, tai chi holds a particularly great potential for the health of Australian women, as heart disease is currently the number one killer.
If you do decide to begin practising tai chi, it is important to not just settle for any program, as some have no evidence supporting them and there are a lot of sham products on the market. Among the styles most likely to be effective are the Sun, Yang and Wu forms. Slower, gentle styles are recommended for building bone density and strength, while faster varieties are better for cardiovascular health. The Sun style is characterised by higher stances and is best for improving strength, preventing falls and managing arthritis and osteoporosis. Yang has many lower stances, and a lot of upper body movement; it is considered to be beneficial for heart health. Wu is characterised by soft circular movements and was described in the NHM article as getting one woman out of a neck brace. Overall, tai chi is a great exercise if you need to strengthen and tone your whole body, but if you have any injuries or serious illness it is best to consult your doctor first.
Alexandra Preston is a degree-qualified naturopath located in Bundall on the Gold Coast. For any questions, including to book an appointment, click here.