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Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Fair and Balanced

Tai chi: Meditation in motion for elderly

By John Russo Jr./

VICUS.COM (18 April 2000) -- Tai chi, a Chinese martial art, emphasizes complete relaxation and is essentially a form of meditation, or what has been called "meditation in motion." Unlike the hard martial arts, tai chi is characterized by soft, slow, flowing movements that emphasize force rather than brute strength. It is practiced primarily for its health benefits, including exercise and increased flexibility, as well as for its positive effects on stress and tension.

Tai chi chuan exercise also has been shown to reduce the risk of falls in the elderly. Now, a study from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Hong, et al., 2000) reports that tai chi promotes better control of balance and improves flexibility and cardiovascular fitness in older adults.

Study review

Several indicators were compared in two groups of men in their mid-60s, including resting heart rate, left and right single-leg stance with eyes closed, modified sit and reach and total body rotation (left and right); the results of a three-minute step test also were compared. The first group included 28 men with an average of 13 years of tai chi experience. The control group included 30 sedentary men.

The men who practiced tai chi had significantly better scores in resting heart rate, three-minute step test heart rate, modified sit and reach, total body rotation test on both right and left side (P < 0.01). They were also better at the right and left leg standing with eyes closed position (P < 0.05). In fact, based on the American Fitness Standards, the tai chi group ranked in the 90th percentile for sit and reach, as well as for total body rotation test, right and left.


This is one more example of the benefits that can be achieved by a commitment to modest physical activity, in this case, tai chi. The results reported in these men who had more than a decade of experience in tai chi complement other studies of novice tai chi practitioners. For example, a researcher from the University of Houston (Yan, 1999) recently reported that eight weeks of tai chi practice lead to improved arm movement in a study group of older men (average age was 79), compared with walking or jogging. The researchers concluded that tai chi practice might serve as a better, real-world exercise for older adults.

Another study in elderly women showed significant improvement (P = .05) in trait anxiety and pain perception (Ross, et al., 1999).

In addition, a study of more than 1,000 seniors sponsored by the National Institute on Aging found that between 10 and 36 weeks of tai chi was associated with a 25% decrease in injuries from falls during the next two to four years. In fact, it was the only activity associated with a statistically significant decrease in the number of falls among elderly participants (Province, et al., 1995).

These findings have important implications for senior citizens and tai chi instructors. For seniors, tai chi can be a valuable activity to help maintain their physical activity, while reducing the risk of injuries in daily life. For tai chi instructors, the elderly are a poorly tapped market that can help expand their practice. However, success will be achieved by understanding the goals of the elderly and modifying tai chi to meet their needs and abilities.

John Russo, Jr., PharmD, is senior vice president of medical communications at He is a pharmacist and medical writer with more than 20 years of experience in medical education.



Hong Y, Li JX, Robinson PD. Balance control, flexibility, and cardiorespiratory fitness among older Tai Chi practitioners. Br J Sports Med. 2000 Feb; 34(1):29-34.

Province MA, Hadley EC, Hornbrook MC, et al. The effects of exercise on falls in elderly patients. A preplanned meta-analysis of the FICSIT Trials. Frailty and Injuries: Cooperative Studies of Intervention Techniques. JAMA. 1995 May 3; 273(17):1341-7.

Ross MC, Bohannon AS, Davis DC, et al. The effects of a short-term exercise program on movement, pain, and mood in the elderly. Results of a pilot study. J Holist Nurs. 1999 Jun; 17(2):139-47.

Yan JH. Tai chi practice reduces movement force variability for seniors. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 1999 Dec; 54(12):M629-34.