Food & Fitness After 50: The Benefits of Tai Chi

My friend Bonne asked about the health benefits of Tai Chi for older adults, so I was thrilled to meet Chris Cinnamon, owner and head instructor of Chicago Tai Chi.™ I met Chris, an American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) certified exercise physiologist, at the ACSM Health & Fitness Summit and we struck up a conversation about Tai Chi. I knew I had met the perfect person to help me understand and explain the benefits of this ancient martial art to my Food and Fitness After 50 friends.

From Navy Flier to Lawyer to Tai Chi Practitioner

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Chris practicing Tai Chi in Utah

Chris, age 59, is also an example of someone who eats well, moves well, and practices what it takes to be well, but his journey was a winding road that led him to his current path. After college, Chris joined the Navy where he flew carrier-based fighter jets. After his stint in the military he attended the University of Michigan Law School and had a successful law practice for over 20 years. As managing partner of a busy firm, it dawned on him that the “intensity and volume of work endemic to the law profession was shortening my life,” said Chris. That examination of his life while in his mid-40s made him map out a new plan. Athletic and a competitive martial artist, he discovered Tai Chi as “softer martial art.” So, he began training with a high-level Tai Chi Master. After the first week he knew that this was the right direction for his life.

As he transitioned out of law and into his new life, he decided to go back to school to get a graduate degree in exercise physiology to better understand the science behind movement and exercise. It was also a way to bridge the difference between Western and Eastern perspectives in promoting health and wellness.

Chicago Tai Chi

Founding Chicago Tai Chi was certainly “an unconventional step for a lawyer but it felt deeply right for me,” says Chris. He started his school as an experiment with just a few classes but in 8 years has grown it into the leading Tai Chi school in Chicago. “I teach 12 to 14 classes a week, see private clients for individual sessions, lead workshops, and manage a growing business. It’s hard work at times, but very meaningful and exciting.” With a total of three instructors, they have over 150 students attending classes, online trainings, and workshops.

Understanding Tai Chi

Tai chiWhen asked to explain Tai Chi to the uninitiated, Chris puts it this way. “I describe Tai Chi as a sophisticated exercise system.  Tai Chi originated as a martial art in China over 600 years ago. Introduced in the U.S. about 60 years ago, Tai Chi is mainly performed today as a health practice. It is a low impact, yet powerful whole-body exercise.” The benefits are many, “Tai Chi works the muscles, all connective tissues including fascia, the joints, the spine, and the nervous system.” Chris describes how, unlike many forms of exercise, Tai Chi works the entire body, even internal organs. “By performing smooth, fluid Tai Chi movements in increasingly connected ways, you work more than just muscles and the cardiovascular system, you intentionally work internal organs, like the kidney, liver, spleen, and digestive tract with gentle compressing and releasing motions. This promotes circulation of fluids, motility of tissue, and healthy functioning of organs. Healthy organs support healthy aging.”

When I asked Chris the difference between yoga and Tai Chi he described “yoga is a practice that assumes positions and holds them to stretch muscles and other tissues. Tai Chi is almost the opposite, you relax to stretch. The more you release tension, the more the tissues relax and elongate.”

“I have had extensive training in Tai Chi, Qigong, Meditation and related practices, some of which may seem esoteric.  My background helps me explain the health benefits of Tai Chi from a Western exercise science perspective. My clients and students find that really helpful,” says Chris.

The Health Benefits of Tai Chi

benefits-of-tai-chi-exercisesA recent review of research of the health benefits of Tai Chi reveals that the strongest evidence is for reducing fall risk and reducing pain from knee osteoarthritis. Evidence is also growing, but not conclusive for enhancing cognitive function, as well as many other health conditions.

Reducing fall risk is a critical for an aging population. A recent report in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) cites falls as “major epidemic” for older Americans. One in three persons over the age of 65 falls every year and falls can be life threatening. Broken hips, knees or ankles can mark the start of downward cycle of hospitalization, loss of independence, and lasting effects on both physical and mental health.

Several studies have shown that practicing tai chi helps reduce fall risk. Chris describes Tai Chi as a great exercise to combat all the things that contribute to falling. “Tai Chi can make you more stable and secure in your gait by strengthening leg muscles, which in turn makes you more confident in your abilities to move through space. I’ve seen clients get stronger after about 6 to 8 weeks of Tai Chi practice.”

Tai Chi is also a great exercise for those with knee osteoarthritis. Many people with knee pain stop exercising and Tai Chi can be great way for someone who has been sedentary, deconditioned, or overweight to begin exercising. “Tai Chi works the weight bearing joints and the gentle movement can help alleviate pain,” reports Chris.

From personal observation based on his 8 years of watching clients transform, Chris says “the emphasis on relaxing in Tai Chi has mental and emotional benefits. It calms the mind and helps people learn to cope with stress. My students and clients frequently report being less upset and reactive to stressful situations.”

Chris also shared a story of a long-time student who was practicing Tai Chi at home. Her husband observed her and remarked how graceful she looked. The woman was thrilled, no one had ever called her graceful before. That didn’t surprise Chris, “the neurological connections made in practicing Tai Chi lead to fluid, graceful movement.”

Getting started

older-adults-tai-chi-outside-e1505160556655I asked Chris how someone could get started in Tai Chi and what to look for in an instructor or class. “I suggest monitoring a class to learn about the instructor and students. Ask the instructor about his or her training and experience. And, the bottom line of any class, it should be convenient and enjoyable.” Chris offers a series of online courses and that is a good place to start if Tai Chi instruction is not available where you live. (Click here to learn more about the online courses.)

Advice for aging well

We closed our conversation by reviewing the three pieces of advice that Chris gives for optimal aging.

#1. Move more. “The research is overwhelming that activity reduces the risk of chronic disease. It doesn’t matter what you do, just move and get strong.”

#2. Pursue a practice that calms emotions and settles the mind. “High stress adversely affects health, and exercises like Tai Chi that emphasize relaxing and calming the mind can help with the mental side of life.”

#3. Eat well. “Get the advice of a qualified nutritionist.” Or in other words, don’t fall for the fads or diet du jour and learn to eat healthfully and with enjoyment.

I encourage you to visit Chicago Tai Chi™ website and follow Chris’ blog at this link.

For more information on eating well, moving well, and being well, check out Food & Fitness After 50.

Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved.