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.

Food & Fitness After 50: A, B, Cs of Aging (Agility, Balance, and Coordination)

After hip replacement surgery I was looking for a class that would continue my rehabilitation and help me be more flexible, agile, and coordinated as I approached my mid-60s. I found it, and so much more, at a twice weekly 60-minute “yo-flex” class at my local YMCA. The class combines classical yoga poses, with Pilates moves, and balance exercises; it’s been 5 years since my first class and I’m hooked!

Exercise physiologist, Dr. Bob Murray, co-author of Food & Fitness After 50, reminds us that balance, flexibility, and agility can all be improved with regular practice and should be part of a well-designed exercise program for older adults. “Balance, flexibility, and agility wane with age mostly because we neglect them. One of the many negatives associated with a sedentary lifestyle is that overall motor function—our ability to move in unrestricted ways—atrophies along with muscle mass. It’s true that if we don’t use it, we lose it, and that applies to balance, flexibility, and agility. All too often, balance, flexibility, and agility training are neglected in favor of cardiovascular and strength training.”

When I said I found so much more than an exercise class, I meant that I also found a friend in instructor, Tina. I asked Tina about her journey to healthy aging and I think her story will resonate with many of you and inspire everyone.

What do you do to stay active and has it changed as you’ve reached your fifties?

Tina HowardWell, as you know I love yoga!  I practice twice a week at the YMCA and sometimes at home with videos on Yoga with Adriene.  I also enjoy taking yoga classes when I travel to learn from other instructors. I started playing pickleball last year and really enjoyed that until I had knee surgery.  For now, I am limited to light weight training and yoga until my knee integrates fully.  It’s funny how you can be lazy and just think, “I will work out tomorrow,” but when you are injured and can’t exercise, it is all you want to do!

My activity level has been up and down over time.  When I was young, we lived in a city where just going outside was dangerous, and so I was a chubby kid – short for my age, and very round.  I watched a lot of TV.  Then we moved to a suburb with broad streets and little traffic.  Like a lot of 1970s kids, we were on bikes all day…flying around the neighborhood, playing kickball and touch football, only coming inside when it was too dark to see.  I stayed active throughout my twenties and thirties by running and cycling.  My husband is an ex-athlete, so we enjoyed an active lifestyle until kids came along.  As a working parent with three children, my spare time was spent watching my kids play sports.  I began to feel bad and started having aching joints and muscle spasms.  And, then I discovered yoga. Research supports the benefits of yoga for balance and flexibility, and more recently it has been shown to help ease pain of knee osteoarthritis in older women.

What motivates you to stay active? 

When I was younger, I would sign up for competitive road races.  I am a goal-oriented person, so having entered a race made me stick to a training schedule.  As I entered middle age, it came down to something much simpler: I feel really bad when I don’t move. I feel much better when I do.

I know you are a vegetarian; what led you to adopt that dietary pattern?

I don’t eat meat and haven’t since I was a kid.  I’ve always loved animals and my dad took me on farm tours when I was young. Seeing poultry and cattle production and realizing they were being raised for food just bothered me, so I decided to be a vegetarian. And, besides the ethical issues for me, vegetarian diets provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and some cancers.

I have a healthy appetite and could eat all day long, but I’ve found a way to keep hunger in check. I keep a stash of raw almonds everywhere – my car and my briefcase.  They’re a little sweet, so they satisfy my sweet tooth while providing protein, healthy fats, and fiber, so I feel satiated.  Almonds pair well with bananas and apples for a quick breakfast or snack, and they also pair with dark chocolate for a sweet treat.

If you had to name 3 things you do to age well, what would they be?

  1. Learn to read your body’s cues. Try to understand why you feel bad, why you are grouchy, sore, irritated, or sick.  Then, be prepared to try to do some self-care to remedy it.  Many of our health issues are self-inflicted by poor diet and lack of exercise. So, instead of reaching for a pill, first try a lifestyle change.
  2. Hormonal changes, especially at menopause, can lead to insomnia, fatigue, bone and muscle loss, and an increase in belly fat. Find a doctor that understands the hormonal changes of aging and work together to find a solution that is best for you. And, ask your doctor to check other hormone levels, like thyroid and Vitamin D, and if the levels are out of the normal range, remedy it before it leads to major health problems.
  3. Socialize often. With age often comes isolation from kids leaving home, retirement, or the loss of parents or friends. Social interaction takes more planning and effort as we age – if we don’t have to be somewhere, it is easy to stay in our comfort zone at home. Social activities and social connections are important to our mental health.  And, by social interactions, I don’t mean Facebook or Instagram!

Do you have any words of wisdom for others?

Find a healthy activity you like and go do it, no matter what.  Don’t wait for your spouse to join you or your friends to sign up with you.  Be prepared to go it alone, be prepared to try a million different things, and be prepared to feel awkward.

When I started practicing yoga, it felt foreign and silly.  Here were these hippy-dippie instructors with belly button rings that could bend themselves into shapes I could only imagine! I’d be in sweatpants, trying to fold myself over after a day at the desk, and I’d think, “this is so not me!” But, I kept going anyway ,and although I didn’t become like the other people, I eventually got comfortable in my own skin and accepted what I could do. Fitting in was more about me accepting myself than being like the others.  So, find your joy – live in it every day.