Tai Chi Leads to Greater Physical Functioning in Older Adults

Older men and women who are most in need of the benefits of regular exercise are exactly the ones who tend to reap the greatest rewards from twice-weekly tai chi classes, according to a new report.

Tai chi participants with initial low levels of physical functioning tended to realize rapid and sustained progress toward higher functional levels, according to lead investigator Fuzhong Li, Ph.D., from the Oregon Research Institute. In addition, Li says those “who reported low levels of health perceptions and high levels of depression [before taking the classes] … tended to benefit more in terms of changes in physical function than those with higher perceptions of health and lower depression.”

These latest findings on the benefits for adults over age 65 of the low-impact Chinese exercise appear in a special supplement to the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine focused on physical activity.

Li and colleagues reported in 2001 that older men and women who took twice-weekly tai chi classes reported significant improvements in their self-rated functional limitations in as little as three months. After six months, they were twice as likely a comparison group of wait-listed adults to report not being limited in their ability to perform moderate to vigorous activities.

“It is important to determine which participants benefit most, least, or both from an intervention,” Li comments, adding that this information “can be vital for … developing programs more finely tailored for specific subgroups.”

Li and his colleagues therefore re-analyzed their original data, taking additional participant characteristics into account.

Individuals who reported more physical limitations and were wait-listed tended to remain low functioning during the six-month study, the researchers found. Likewise, all of the participants who started the study with few or no limitations tended to remain at their original level of functioning, whether or not they practiced tai chi.

In contrast, participants who reported more limitations and took the tai chi classes tended to improve at what the researchers describe as “significantly steeper rates” over the course of the study. This was particularly true for those lower-functioning participants who expressed the worst perceptions of their general health and reported the most symptoms of depression when the study began.

Improvement from tai chi practice depended not only on finding a class that sufficiently challenged one’s existing physical condition, the investigators found, but also on adhering to the required routine, as evidenced by more frequent class attendance.

While these findings portray twice-weekly tai chi classes as a particularly attractive option for sedentary adults, Li and his colleagues do not discount the value of regular training for more active individuals. Among the high-functioning subjects, he notes, those who practiced tai chi tended to realize small but nevertheless significant improvements in physical function. These improvements, he proposes, might be greater if they were “placed in a training class that employs more intensive/vigorous practices to promote appreciable changes.”

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