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Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese martial art that consists of a series of very slow, gentle, and continuous movements, is highly suitable as a low-impact exercise activity for senior citizens. Practicing the ancient art enables older people to develop stronger muscles and increase both their balance and concentration. Therefore, this low-impact activity helps the elderly regain physical functioning that may have been lost during periods of inactivity.

One recent study involved 72 people between the ages of 65 and 96. One group was given an hour-long class twice a week for a period of six months while the second group was promised a four-week class at the end of the study. Even with this low-impact program being held only twice a week, significant improvements emerged after just three months. More importantly, benefits improved additionally as the study moved to six months of participation, a clear indication that additional health gains could be derived from a longer periods of participation.

These findings contrasted with previous research on exercise programs that suggested much longer periods of time were needed to show significant improvements. At the completion of the study, the Tai Chi students demonstrated increased confidence in their ability to perform more vigorous exercises. Also in sharp contrast to previous research regarding exercise programs where data indicated that half of all sedentary people are unable to maintain their newly adopted exercise program, only 18 percent of participants in the Tai Chi class dropped out of the program.

The research from the study appears to indicate that Tai Chi is a more attractive form of fitness activity for an aging population. In fact, class members called the lessons a positive experience, with many reporting wide ranging benefits that increased personal energy and while also relaxing them at the same time.

In considering Tai Chi as an exercise method, consider the following results of this second study published in a recent article in the Journal of Advanced Nursing. A study of fall-prone senior citizens, living in residential care with an average age of 78, examined 59 individuals. Twenty-9 members of the test group were given a 12-week Tai Chi course, three times a week. Thirty members of the test study formed a non-exercise control group.

The twenty-nine member group involved in Tai Chi showed significant improvement in their physical fitness. Among the many improvements were stronger knee and ankle muscles, increased mobility and flexibility, and perhaps most importantly, better balance. After the exercise program had finished, the time taken by the Tai Chi group to walk six meters had fallen by 25 per cent, while the control group took 14 per cent longer.

The exercise program used in the research consisted of a 35 minute total workout. Subjects began with ten minutes of warm up then followed that up with, 20 minutes of Sun-style Tai Chi movement. To complete the workout, the active group finished with five minutes of cooling down exercises. While involved with the exercises, traditional instrumental music was played as an aid to help the group maintain the slow and continuous movements that Tai Chi demands.

Prior to the 12-week exercise program and then again after it had been completed, both groups underwent a number of physical tests to assess their muscle strength, balance and confidence in avoiding falls. The study's participants also reported any falls that they experienced during the 12-week period. While 31 per cent of the exercise group said they had had a fall, the non-fitness oriented group reported a 50 per cent fall rate. These numbers contrasted significantly with those from data taken the year before the research was done. While the control group had an almost identical 57 per cent fall rate the prior year, the exercise group had reported that 66 per cent of them had had a fall.

Even a low-intensity exercise such as Tai Chi has enormous potential for increased health in seniors. Because it helps older people avoid falls through the development of balance and muscle strength, the martial arts exercise would also help keep seniors from the bone fractures that often accompany such falls. Perhaps most importantly, it is precisely the low-impact, modestly strenuous activity that is actually reasonable for previously sedentary seniors to do without overloading their bodies with too much physical stress.