Tai chi is ‘medication in motion’

One of the best parts of Fung Song’s week is when she gets to participate in a tai chi class.

Fung is among several Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre residents who are able to easily practise the ancient martial art in their wheelchairs thanks to the accessible class that uses special props like decorative fans.

Guided by the beat of uplifting music, Fung, 84, finds tai chi offers her many benefits.

“I have a lot of interest in it and I get a lot of joy from it,” says Fung. “When I do practise, I feel more awake and happy.”

Along with its ability to elevate mood, research shows that tai chi can help keep our minds sharp as we age and even improve thinking, problem solving and memory. And it’s an activity that is accessible to people of all ages and fitness and mobility levels.

“The benefit of tai chi in particular is you can do it at any age. Also, some studies support its impact on cognitive function, especially in areas of decision making and executive function,” says Dr. Marjan Abbasi, medical site lead for geriatrics at the Misericordia Community Hospital. “Some people call tai chi medication in motion or meditation in motion.”

Marjan says it’s natural for parts of our brains to shrink as we age, especially the areas used for multi-tasking, decision making and memory. Our brains can start to shrink about five per cent each decade after age 40, and this can accelerate after age 70. These changes can lead to trouble remembering names or words, but these are normal parts of aging and don’t necessarily affect our function. But exercise, including tai chi, can help slow the process.

“Studies have shown that exercise can actually slow this shrinkage and even increase the volume in these areas of the brain,” she says.

Tai chi instructor Ken Chui has been teaching for almost 25 years and leads the classes for Edmonton General residents on Friday mornings. Since tai chi doesn’t require equipment or a lot of space, almost anyone can do it, he says. 

“Tai chi is good for the body and the spirit,” he says. “I teach in a way that you can do tai chi anytime and anywhere, and it improves motor co-ordination, which I think gives people more confidence.”

Residents at the Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre enjoy tai chi lessons, and its positive effect on residents’ minds and bodies is apparent after class, says Pollyanna Kwong, recreational therapist.

Song Fung, an Edmonton General resident, says tai chi is one of the best parts of her week.

“They really enjoy it, not only for socialization, but because they find they have a better appetite and better co-ordination,” says Pollyanna. 

To reap the benefits of tai chi, Marjan recommends people exercise at least 150 minutes per week, and start sooner rather than later.

“It’s never too late, but it’s like putting money in your bank for your future,” she says. “You don’t start saving in your 70s, you start in your 20s and 30s.”

Even if you’re not interested in tai chi, carving 15 to 20 minutes out of your day to exercise can improve your balance, memory and co-ordination, says Marjan.

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