Tai Chi For Seniors: Part #1

photo5Part One

During an early scene in the 60’s classic Easy Rider, two biker/drug dealers stop for some R&R at a peaceful southwestern desert commune. The camera scans the assorted goings on, and among the different groups pictured is a solitary, bearded, shirtless fellow practicing what appears to be Tai Chi. This was fairly representative of the public’s image of Tai Chi at that time, something strange, practiced by counter culture types.

Fast forward to the present day, and we see how that perception has undergone a radical transformation. When targeting the senior citizen market, whether for arthritis remedies or upscale adult communities, advertisers feel enough confidence in the public’s familiarity with Tai Chi to use it as a metaphor for vibrant senior health. The most well known example is the Celebrex commercial

Today Tai Chi is heartily recommended for seniors, with the blessings of the medical community. Why is it so well suited for seniors? To better appreciate Tai Chi’s benefits, it is necessary to understand what the aging process entails. The following two examples are fairly representative of the deficits that occur with aging and decreased activity.

THE CROUCHING TIGER

Roberto Duran, the 1970’s lightweight boxing champion was pound for pound the most feared fighter of his day. His devastating punching power earned him the nickname “manos de piedras” (hands of stone). Fighting out of a deep crouch, he battered his opponents relentlessly. Toward the end of his career, as the result of too much of the “good life” and erratic training he became a sorry shadow of his former self. The most telling aspect of his physical decline was the complete change in the depth of his fighting stance. He fought upright with little, if any, bend in his knees, moving around the ring as if on stilts. His punches lacked their old thunder. The hands of stone had not turned to clay, but rather, his power base was gone. The late Professor Cheng Man Ching, would have remarked that Duran could no longer “borrow the strength of the earth”. His condition was an excellent example of the effects of aging, and how leg strength and balance affect over all bodily power.

THE RECLINER

Unfortunately the favorite place for many male senior citizens becomes the comfortable recliner chair. With a remote control within hand’s reach countless hours are spent channel surfing and dozing. Eventually it takes more effort to get out of the chair, often requiring quite a few attempts to do so. This act requires not only adequate leg strength, but also, flexibility, coordination, timing, and balance. The trunk must be bent sufficiently forward for the legs to lift the upper body off the chair. The push off from the legs has to be coordinated at the proper time to take advantage of the forward momentum of the trunk. After coming to standing, balance has to be maintained. The ability to orchestrate this seemingly simple act becomes increasingly more difficult with the onset of aging.

Tai Chi directly addresses leg strength, balance, coordination, and timing, all vital physical attributes that seniors should strive to maintain. Recognizing Tai Chi’s efficacy, enterprising instructors have produced senior oriented instructional videos. Usually a very condensed 1-2 minute form is taught. Undoubtedly these videos can be very helpful, but as a physical therapist who works exclusively with seniors, I have some issues with this method of instruction. In part 2 of this essay I will discuss the shortcomings of these videos and present a more effective method that can be taught to a broader segment of the senior population.

Part Two

Gary Shapiro married with two children,  is a former USAF navigator. He has been practicing Tai Chi for as long as he’s been a physical therapist- about 25 yrs- and is interested in applying the practical aspects of Tai Chi to benefit those he works with.

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