By Tommy Kirchhoff
Exercise for seniors must be beneficial, and it cannot be harmful. Seniors simply cannot risk getting injured when they exercise. But most kinds of exercise are risky for seniors.
In 2006 Oprah.com posted an article that recommends changing your exercise habits over your lifetime; multiple “fitness experts” offered advice about exercising in your 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s.
Although the article offers terrible advice for folks who are middle aged-plus (it suggests lifting weights in your 60s…) the essence of the article points to gradually phasing-out strength exercises and resistance training in order to maintain mobility later in life. The article offers no advice for how to exercise after you turn 70. (Here’s the link, but I really hope you don’t read it)
After teaching exercise to seniors and Baby Boomers for 15 years I have come to understand their needs compassionately and realistically. They don’t need to look “fit” or have strength, or possess anything superficial like that.
No, Ma’am, not at all.
I will tell you the honest truth. (and perhaps you already know it…)
Seniors and Boomers need HEALTH.
MOBILITY IS THE NUMBER ONE INDICATOR OF HEALTH.
If this is a new concept for you I’m sure you can pick it up pretty quickly. It makes sense, right?
The more mobile you are, the fewer health problems you will have. This has everything to do with simply bearing your own body weight on your bones (which is where white blood cells are manufactured); proper mobilization of the hip joints and spinal column; and stimulation of the internal organs. When you practice these things in an organized way you will significantly boost your health.
Most recently, exercise has been all about muscle and strength. But in the near future, we will look back on these concepts as barbaric. Why? Well, for a lot of reasons.
We are starting to realize that building muscle is not as valuable as enhancing function. In fact, when older people try to develop or re-gain lost muscle the results tend to be negative and damaging.
Progressive doctors and trainers are closing in on the exercise of the future. They know “functional” is better than strong, and that stretching the tendons is really important.
The hottest emerging exercise is called functional exercise or (gulp) “functional fitness.” (I don’t like the word fitness) The overall concept suggests that conventional weight lifting isolates and builds muscles but it doesn’t “teach” those muscle groups how to work together with other muscles.
So “functional” movements de-emphasize raw strength and focus more on whole-body integration and coordination. Therefore, functional movements are better to help you lift a toddler out of a car seat, or carry a 30-pound suitcase down the stairs. Functional exercise should also help prevent you from getting injured.
As you continue reading, you will discover the exercise of the future.
GENERAL SENIOR AND BOOMER FITNESS
Without medical doctors, we sure would be lost. They know all kinds of stuff about organs, and bones, and pharmaceuticals—
all kinds of stuff.
But when I read about some doctor suggesting that seniors should lift weights,
I shake my head in disbelief. Wow that’s dumb.
They don’t call ’em DUMBBELLS for nuthin’.
Over time, when you lift weights you are reducing your mobility. Your tendons get shorter and shorter from all the excessive pulling; this in turn reduces your range of motion. Even if you stretch, it’s not enough. You lose more mobility every day.
By the time you’re 55, your tendons are short and brittle. Lifting weights or dumbbells exacerbates the problem, and can cause the muscle fibers to tear away from the connective tissues (tendons and ligaments), which can also tear out of the boney places where muscle connects (muscle origins and insertions).
Resistance training is just plain dumb for older people.
And fitness is a dirty word.
As humans, we want to walk upright. But as we age, the so-called “stabilizing muscles” have tensed up for so many years that they begin to lock up. I’m talking primarily about the hips and waist.
As the hips lock up over time, elderly people tend to short steps while bent over and knock-kneed (in the adducted, inward-rotated and hip-flexed position); and the upper and lower body always follows. Knees, feet and ankles get stiff. Shoulders, elbows, wrists and fingers get stiff.
(This all started before you even turned 30…)
Without proper stretching, the joints break down. They progressively stiffen out of alignment because some ligaments lengthen abnormally while others shorten. This asymmetry wears the cartilage, causing arthritis, pain and reduced mobility.
Seniors and Boomers should avoid all of the following:
- Working out and workouts
- Fitness and staying fit
- Muscle, strength, tensing and squeezing
- Ab(dominal) workouts and core strength
- Aerobics, rapid movements, and especially jogging
- Muscle “toning,” staying “in shape”
- Fitness in general
BENEFICIAL EXERCISE PROGRAMS FOR SENIORS AND BOOMERS
We discussed lifting weights and dumbbells, and we detailed about how they are damaging to seniors and Baby Boomers. But what kind of exercise does not use strength and tension?
Tai Chi, Yoga and QiGong are fundamentally different than lifting dumbbells and jogging. These exercises will take you on a journey of relaxation, deep breathing and stretching.
Lifting weights and dumbbells will make your body brittle. Tai Chi will make you tender and live years younger.
What is the difference between Yoga and Tai Chi? Tai Chi always keeps your feet on the ground (which is functional), while yoga tends to mandate many uncomfortable poses with the body weight sometimes on the knees, hands, back and belly (not as functional).
Unfortunately, most forms of American Yoga are still strength-based exercises, which are not recommended for seniors and Boomers. Let’s face it: Down-facing Dog is worse than doing push-ups.
If you practice Tai Chi, you will let go of your strength. You will relax, stand upright, and allow your tendons to stretch in natural, rotational patterns. This will increase your mobility and your health.
Tai Chi is based on a Chinese philosophy called the “Tao Te Ching”; it’s chapter 76 reads:
Man when living is soft and tender;
When dead is hard and tough.
All animals and plants when living are tender and fragile
When dead they become withered and dry.
Therefore it is said:
The hard and tough are parts of death;
The soft and tender are parts of life.
Relaxation is very misunderstood.
BUT HOW DO YOU RELAX?
A hot bath and a good book?
Prescription drugs like Xanax?
When I asked a friend of mine, she said she relaxes by swimming. She puts her ears in the water and floats. This is a good idea, but still not the kind of relaxation we are capable of.
The human body harbors amazing amounts of tension. We manifest psychological anxiety as tension in our bodies, especially in the waist and hips. Our daily habits offer few varieties in range of motion. We also sit way too much.
Do you want to know why your neck hurts at the end of the day?
It’s because your hips are tight. Your hips are simply PULLING on your neck.
High-level relaxation requires special training, special breathing and special movement. These only come from Tai Chi (and QiGong).
Tai Chi is an academic pursuit that teaches the body profoundly different sets of study and practice. It requires that you come to understand this paradox:
You must concentrate on relaxation. You must relax and concentrate.
(These are opposing forces)
The great Tai Chi grandmaster Fu Wing Fay said,
“Tai Chi is a kind of profound art where you use your mind and not your strength. Your mind and your chi (energy) are the masters, and your flesh and bones are but servants. Because of this, when you practice Tai Chi your whole body should be completely relaxed. There should not be a single bit of brute strength remaining within your muscles and bones.”
Think about it. Every movement you make every day requires that you use strength or brute strength.
So how can you go from using only strength to using no strength whatsoever? The answer is mindfulness and deep relaxation.
Relaxation boosts mobility and the immune system.
So relax, relax, and relax some more.
CHAIR WORKOUTS FOR SENIORS
As I mentioned, avoid everything labeled “workout.” Definitely don’t do dumbbells.
Seniors and Baby Boomers need to relax when they exercise, whether it’s stepping around the room, standing stationary, or sitting in a chair. While it’s true that most people do sit far too much, sitting upright can really allow you to relax when you exercise.
If any of the following are familiar to you, exercising seated in a chair is probably the best option:
- People with poor balance, and higher risk of falling during exercise.
- People who suffer from joint pain that makes standing painful and difficult.
- People who have a limited range of motion or poor mobility.
- If you’re recovering from a surgery or an injury.
- Beginners who want to start slow and work up to standing exercises.
SEATED EXERCISES FOR SENIORS AND BOOMERS
Tommy Kirchhoff works with a large group of seniors in Salt Lake City, Utah
The world of relaxing exercise is a new place for many people. So when a new student asks me how to get started, I like to have her try the sitting exercises first, even if she is completely able-bodied.
Keep in mind that the purpose of relaxing exercise is for increasing mobility, healing, and overall health. It’s not for entertainment on a Saturday night. Well, I guess it canbe.
So even though a senior can work in the garden for hours or jog a mile, she will learn more about relaxation if she sits in a firm chair, breathes deeply, and allows the movement and breath to soothe her entire body. Gentle music like lullabies and pleasant scents like jasmine or lavender can help with relaxation too.
I’m going to tell you something about relaxation and you’re going to think it’s strange. But this is science, and I want you to feel better through relaxation.
On the roof of your mouth is an indentation exactly the same size as your tongue. It’s called the hard palate. If you fit your tongue up into the hard palate, close your lips, and breathe only through your nose, you will relax more. It’s been proven.
If you think about relaxation you will relax more. If you lift your arms slowly as you inhale deeply through your nose, you will relax more. If you lower your arms slowly as you exhale deeply, you will relax more. This may sound dumb, but all of this relaxation will make you feel great. And it’s important to the healing process.
The Chinese developed this kind of exercise about 1000 years ago. They call it QiGiong (chee-gung). This kind of exercise is supposed to be simple, easy, gentle, and highly beneficial. Tai Chi and (its mother) QiGong are being researched by many of the best universities in the world. Harvard, Stanford, and UCLA are just a few.
Tai Chi has been clinically proven to be more effective than pharmaceuticals for treatment of the shingles virus.
Tai Chi has also been proven highly effective for arthritis, heart and lung diseases, breathing issues, back pain, physical function, balance, bone density, depression, reducing falls, self-efficacy, sexual function, strength (if you can believe it) and overall quality of life. Many more studies are under way.
When I tell you that Sitting Tai Chi is actual, healing exercise, I promise that it is not only backed up with clinical research, but many people are eager to share their results with others.
No matter what physical ability you possess, you will greatly improve your life if you practice Sitting Tai Chi.
BALANCE EXERCISES FOR SENIORS AND BOOMERS
Tai Chi has been clinically proven to be more effective than other practices for improving balance. I think it can be said that Tai Chi is the gold standard for improving balance, against which all other methods are compared.
I’ve seen clinical studies on balance training and products that claimed to be, “as effective as Tai Chi for improving balance.” I don’t know about you but if someone were considering the purchase of a balance-improvement widget and the clinical research had to compare the widget to Tai Chi, I would think a person would just go with the Tai Chi and forget about the widget.
Have you ever seen the symbol for Tai Chi?
It looks like this:
Yes. This is the symbol of Tai Chi. Beautifully balanced, isn’t it?
(there is no organized religion associated with this symbol)
This symbol is called the Taijitu and it’s made up of two parts: Yin and Yang. This symbol is on the South Korean flag; and lots of young people like to get this tattoo; but the origin is purely Chinese and it means to communicate, “harmonized opposites” or quite simply:
How can you use this symbol to improve your balance?
Your physical balance?
When you practice Tai Chi, the relaxation and special movements create balance in your body. You first begin with stillness, which is vitally important in Tai Chi.
If you can stand but your balance is weak, you can practice Tai Chi with your weight on both feet. For the movements that balance on one foot you can hold onto a chair to help you.
When you stand on one foot solidly it becomes your foundation; the other foot can move about freely from the solid foundation.
Next, good Tai Chi always includes rotational movements of the waist. Remember the Chubby Checker “Twist”? Tai Chi turns the waist similarly to the “Twist,” but slowly and relaxingly. This movement opens a whole new range of mobility and health.
I imagine that since you were a child you have heard many people talk confidently about posture. Did your mom ever tell you to sit up straight? Did a doctor or a chiropractor ever give you advice on spinal posture?
When your posture is good the rotational movements from Tai Chi work harmoniously with your body. You will turn like a spinning top. When you are out of alignment and your posture is not good you will rotate out of balance. Straight spins well; crooked doesn’t spin.
Many doctors and physical therapists see the human body as a set of hinges. The knees flex, the elbows flex, the ankles flex. But like all earthly creatures the human body was made to rotate. The wrists turn, the shoulders and hips can rotate, and the trunk can twist.
When you can practice standing up straight. Relaxing your body. Breathing deeply in, and breathing deeply out. With your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Relaxed, relaxed. And then slowly, gently—turning your body to the left and to the right, from the waist… your balance and health and mobility will start moving toward abilities that you have never known.
This will bring you so much joy. And you will heal yourself.
BEGINNING TAI CHI FOR SENIORS AND BOOMERS
What is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is a highly organized system of maintenance for your body and mind. The practice is very different than other things you’ve done in your lifetime.
If you ask any Tai Chi teacher or enthusiast how to begin learning Tai Chi, the answer is almost always, “find a qualified teacher.”
This, of course, leads to more questions and more confusion. So to make it easy I will explain briefly who might be a qualified teacher.
Qualified Tai Chi teachers learn a complex system of movements, principles and theories (from someone…); then they must practice that those learnings extensively. The important part is WHO they learned from. I call this pedigree.
Tai Chi started in a small village in China a few hundred years ago and spread very slowly until the 20th century. The closer you can get to that village (Chen Village) and the originators (the Chen Family, Chen Style) the better your pedigree.
Our family style (Fu Style) Tai Chi started from top Chen Style masters in a village very close to Chen Village. It went on to absorb all of the best ideas from original Yang Style and original Sun Style, as these other great Tai Chi families were close friends of the Fu Family.
While some instructors offer to teach Fu Style, none compare to Grandmaster Victor Fu. He is an original Fu and the grandson of the creator. Grandmaster Fu is like a living legend.
While it’s not practical to jump on an airplane to visit Grandmaster Fu for Tai Chi lessons, I can tell you confidently that he created the world’s greatest Tai Chi instructional on video. It’s called GoldenForm Tai Chi.
To learn the GoldenForm Tai Chi video we recommend that you are able to balance well on one foot and be able to climb two or three flights of stairs. If this sounds too difficult you should try our Standing Energy Tai Chi or our Sitting Tai Chi.
The GoldenForm video (DVD and streaming) first provides a series of exercises to loosen and stretch your waist and hips. Then it teaches a very special stepping exercise that rotates the waist; this special stepping exercise can actually correct problems with the way you walk.
Next, the GoldenForm Tai Chi video breaks down six major movements such that you can learn all six of the movements quite easily.
Tai Chi movements are often named from nature and animals. Wave Hands Like Clouds and Grasp Bird’s Tail each convey a certain “spirit” of the movements, and also help you to remember the movement.
The practice of Fu Style Tai Chi fixes the entire body. It mobilizes the joints and stretches them in all three planes, enabling far greater balance and mobility. The waist turning principle of Tai Chi massages the internal organs, while the slow, super-relaxing movements ward-off stress and soothe the mind. The postural practice emphasizes supporting the body weight with the bones and connective tissue instead of the muscles.
This in turn gently twists the bones, which stimulates the immune system (white blood cells are produced in the bone marrow). The deep breathing technique called “Taoist Breathing” does amazing and wonderful things for the body. Just imagine getting more oxygen!
The popularity of yoga has paved a perfect path for Tai Chi. Time Magazine calls Tai Chi “the perfect exercise,” and it certainly is. In 20 years, we will look back and say, “how silly that exercise was all about strength.”
TAI CHI MOVES FOR ARTHRITIS
Many clinical research studies prove that Tai Chi is highly beneficial for arthritis.
Whether for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or one of the less common types of arthritis, Tai Chi reduces pain and swelling, increases range of motion, and generally helps people suffering from it.
Millions and millions of people are finding relief from arthritis with Tai Chi.
I could do what others have done, and write a re-cap of each of the best research studies. I could carefully cite the medical journals and foundations, the number of participants, and the overall results.
But there are gobs of studies and they all say the same thing:
Tai Chi is awesome for arthritis.
Instead, I will point to our Tai Chi videos, and provide the links to the clinical studies.