|Tai chi photo by superstock|
The best-studied form of exercise for elders is tai chi, an ancient Chinese practice combining movement and meditation. Sequences of movements called “forms” are derived from martial arts practices originally modeled on the movements of animals and birds. Transitions from one posture to the next are seamless, as practitioners move slowly and gracefully through a form.
Tai chi reduces pain, stress, and depression in otherwise sedentary seniors, studies find. With physical function improved by the practice, seniors are better able to perform not only daily activities of living, such as eating, dressing and using the toilet, but exercise as demanding as running or lifting weights. Perhaps most importantly, tai chi improves balance, according to researchers from Chung Nam National University in South Korea and Emory University in Atlanta, among others. The Emory researchers found that tai chi reduced by almost 50 percent the risk of a potentially fatal or disabling fall—a deep source of fear for seniors and a leading reason why seniors wind up in nursing homes.
Other movement practices that incorporate gentle movement and meditative attention, such as Feldenkrais, yoga, and qi gong, may also be useful for seniors.
For more information, see www.feldenkrais.com, www.thetaichisite.com, and www.qi.org. Many local YMCAs, gyms, and community centers offer yoga, tai chi, and other movement classes for seniors.