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Tai Chi and Other Low-Impact Exercises May Be Ideal for Elderly People with Chronic Health Problems

Story at-a-glance -

  • For the elderly and those struggling with chronic health problems, low impact exercises like Tai Chi, yoga, and walking can give you the physical benefits of exercise
  • A systematic review found that Tai Chi is beneficial for those suffering with cancer, osteoarthritis, heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Yoga is another gentler form of exercise that can benefit a number of common health problems. It promotes flexibility and core muscle strength, and has been proven beneficial if you suffer with back pain

By Dr. Mercola

Exercise is one of the most important strategies for improving your health. It's also something that can be added to almost any lifestyle, at any age, because there are so many different ways to get your exercise each day.

Even if you are struggling with an illness such as osteoarthritis or chronic illness that makes more common fitness regimens difficult, there are exercises that can help.

Most people facing chronic pain or stiffness tend to lower their activity level. However, this if often one of the worst things you can do since inactivity tends to weaken your muscles even further, which can actually increase pain and stiffness.

Exercises such high-intensity interval training, although one of the most effective forms of exercise there is for health and weight loss, may be too strenuous for people facing certain conditions.

For these people, lower impact exercises1 like Tai Chi, qigong, yoga, and walking can not only give you the physical benefits of exercise but may also help to alleviate pain and stiffness.

What Is Tai Chi?

The 2,000-year-old Chinese practice of Tai Chi is a branch of Qigong – exercises that harness qi (life energy). Often described as "meditation in motion" or "moving meditation," the activity takes your body through a specific set of slow, gentle, and graceful movements.

Your body is constantly in motion and each movement flows right into the next. It's very low impact, making it easy on the body, yet it provides many well-documented health benefits.

Studies have shown that Tai Chi stimulates your central nervous system, lowers blood pressure, relieves stress, tones muscles, and helps with digestion and waste elimination.

Plus, according to traditional Chinese medicine Tai Chi helps to channel chi, or intrinsic energy, through your body's energy meridians, helping you maintain good health.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health,2 health benefits associated with Tai Chi include:

Improvements in physical condition, muscle strength, coordination, and flexibility Improvements in pain and stiffness, including arthritis pain
Improved balance and mobility Improved sleep and overall wellness
Reduced risk of falls, particularly in the elderly Enhanced immune function

Tai Chi May Be Ideal for People with Chronic Health Problems

Previous research has shown that Tai Chi is particularly beneficial for those with osteoarthritis (OA). In one such study,3 older women with OA who performed Tai Chi exercises for three months reported significant improvements in arthritic symptoms, balance, and physical functioning.

More recently, a systematic review4,5,6,7 published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at Tai Chi's effect on four chronic health conditions:

After reviewing the data from 33 studies, the researchers concluded that Tai Chi provided at least some benefit for all of these conditions. All saw improvements in strength, balance, and posture, for example, without adverse side effects such as increased pain or breathlessness.

In those with arthritis, it helped reduce arthritic-specific symptoms like pain and stiffness. Most of the studies involved doing one-hour Tai Chi sessions two or three times a week for about 12 weeks. According to the authors: "The results demonstrated a favorable effect or tendency of Tai Chi to improve physical performance and showed that this type of exercise could be performed by individuals with different chronic conditions, including COPD, HF, and OA."

The researchers also suggest that doctors may someday prescribe Tai Chi to elderly patients suffering with multiple chronic diseases. But why wait? You can learn Tai Chi at home from books or DVDs, but joining a class with an experienced instructor will ensure you're doing the movements correctly and safely. Many areas now offer courses in Tai Chi, so check with your local health club or yoga studio.

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Walking — Another Simple, Health Boosting Practice

If for some reason Tai Chi doesn't appeal to you, there are many other low-impact exercises you can try. Walking, for example, is an excellent way to get movement into your day, and it can easily be turned into a higher intensity exercise as your fitness improves.

As noted by Katy Bowman,8 a scientist and author of the book Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement:

 "Walking is a superfood. It's the defining movement of a human. It's a lot easier to get movement than it is to get exercise. Actively sedentary is a new category of people who are fit for one hour but sitting around the rest of the day. You can't offset 10 hours of stillness with one hour of exercise."

While walking is often underestimated, studies show you can reap significant health benefits from it. For example, one 2014 study9,10 found that walking for two miles a day or more can cut your chances of hospitalization from a severe episode of COPD by about half.

Another study11 published in 2013 found that daily walking reduced the risk of stroke in men over the age of 60. Walking for at least an hour or two could cut a man's stroke risk by as much as one-third, and it didn't matter how brisk the pace was. Taking a three-hour long walk each day slashed the risk by two-thirds.

Ideally, Walking Shouldn't Be Your Sole Form of Exercise...

I actually do not view walking as "exercise" per se, but rather as an essential non-exercise movement we all require for optimal health. And the older you get the more important it becomes. I've personally witnessed my dad's health suffer from not implementing this important health principle.

You can be very athletically fit, but if you are sitting all day with minimal walking or movement, your health will most definitely suffer. I'm fortunate to live on the Florida coast, so I walk barefoot without a shirt on the beach for about two hours each day, which also allows me to get regular sun exposure. I like to read while I walk, and can easily read two or three books a week this way. Multi-tasking allows me to easily justify the time investment. However, I also do about an hour of strength training and stretching every day.

Now, since walking isn't exactly exercise, you can do it every single day, seven days a week, without needing to take time out for your body to repair and regenerate; it doesn't tear down your body much, so it doesn't require recovery time. The downside is that walking won't build your body up much either, unless you start out very unfit.

Walking with proper posture is one way to boost the health benefits of walking. For details and instructional videos, please review my previous articles: "How to Optimize Your Benefits from Walking" and "Principles of Natural Posture."

Yoga Can Benefit Many Common Health Problems

Yoga is another gentler form of exercise that can benefit a number of common health problems. It's particularly useful for promoting flexibility and core muscle strength, and has been proven beneficial if you suffer with back pain. Yoga can also help you turn your health around if you're too overweight to engage in more strenuous types of exercise.

People with heart problems may also want to consider yoga, as researchers have confirmed its beneficial impact on the heart. For example, one 2013 study12 found that regular yoga classes can significantly reduce symptoms associated with atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) — a condition typically treated with beta blockers. These drugs don't work for all patients and come with a slew of side effects, including heart attack and stroke, type 2 diabetes, and sexual dysfunction, just to name a few.

Considering the hazards of the drug paradigm, it certainly makes sense to look into safer alternatives or add-ons, and yoga might offer quite a bit of relief. For the first three months of the study, the participants' heart symptoms, blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety and depression levels, and general quality of life were assessed and tracked. During the second phase, the participants took yoga classes at least twice a week for three months, while still tracking their symptoms.

At the end of the study, the number of times participants reported heart quivering (confirmed by heart monitor), dropped by half. Their average heart rate also fell from an average of 67 beats per minute during the first three months, to 61 to 62 beats per minute post-yoga. The participants also reported feeling less anxiety and depression. Anxiety scores fell from an average of 34 (on a scale of 20 to 80) to an average of 25.

Yoga May Boost Health and Reduce Weight By Improving Leptin Sensitivity

Interestingly, research13 published in 2012 reveals that yoga also has a beneficial impact on leptin, a hormone that plays a key role in regulating energy intake and energy expenditure. According to the authors, expert yoga practitioners had 36 percent higher leptin levels compared to novices, and this can translate into both weight loss and improved health.

Leptin's signals influences things like hunger, fat storage, reproduction, and cellular maintenance and repair. In short, leptin is the way that your fat stores speak to your brain to let your brain know how much energy is available and, most importantly, what to do with it. Along with insulin, leptin resistance is associated with obesity, and impaired insulin/leptin signaling is a foundational core of most chronic degenerative diseases.

Walking Is Good Medicine Regardless of Your Age

Daily movement and exercise becomes increasingly important with age; not less so. Unfortunately, as your health starts to falter, you may be tempted to do less and less, but this is a surefire way to ensure you'll never get better... If you're elderly and suffer from one or more chronic health problems, be it obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoarthritis, or any other chronic disease, you'd be well advised to consider some form of low-impact exercise, plus daily walking.

Research and experience both confirm that walking is powerful medicine. Younger people would do well to pick up the pace and intensity, while the elderly may simply focus on staying in motion for as long as possible each day. Add to this proper posture, and walking can suddenly take you even further, improving your workout, your cardiovascular benefits, and your muscle tone, while decreasing pain and stresses on your joints.

Exercise According to Your Ability, but Aim for a Comprehensive Program

Tai Chi and yoga are two examples of gentle, restorative exercises that help tone and strengthen your body, increase circulation and oxygen flow, and improve flexibility and balance. Tai Chi can be done even if you're confined to a wheelchair, and there are also seated yoga programs if you're too infirm for floor exercises. Do keep in mind that there are many different forms of yoga, and some are extremely taxing, so make sure to research the various forms and select one that matches your physical ability.

If you're too infirm for any of these suggestions, start working on seated exercises to improve your strength and balance. See my "Basic Exercise Guide for Older Seniors and the Infirm" for instructions and video demonstrations. Then, as your mobility improves, keep adding to your routine to keep it challenging. Ideally, you'll want a comprehensive fitness program that includes aerobic, anaerobic, and resistance training as well.

One of the most beneficial types of exercises is high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which consists of short bursts of high intensity activity followed by longer periods of recovery, as opposed to extended episodes of continuous vigorous exertion. Again, one way to incorporate HIIT when you're first starting out is to simply alternate periods of faster walking with periods of a slower pace. Another tip, race as fast as you can up each hill (the pace would be entirely individual), and then walk slowly on the down slope. HIIT is a core part of my Peak Fitness program, which has helped many return to and maintain good health — including folks who are well into their retirement years.