A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit China and spend some time in Beijing. One of my favorite morning activities was to go to a public park close to my hotel. Initially, I just went for walks on my own, but soon I was invited by a small group of local seniors to join in their tai chi exercise. It was a first for me, so I had some learning to do, but everyone was extremely helpful and showed me the ropes. Although I didn’t continue practicing regularly after returning home, the message I received from the encounter stuck.
Tai chi ch’uan, as the exercise was originally called in China, is in fact a form of martial arts. However, unlike aerobic and weight training, its primary purpose is not to increase athletic ability, but rather promote harmony between the physical and mental aspects of our being.
It’s not about being able to run marathons or lift hundreds of pounds. It’s not about winning in competition, says Arthur Rosenfeld, a tai chi master and author of “Tai Chi – The Perfect Exercise: Finding Health, Happiness, Balance and Strength.” It’s a more mature way of accepting one’s body, how it works and how it looks, and also about aging gracefully and with acceptance of one’s inevitable decline.
Much is being talked about the new way of aging as the baby boomer generation approaches retirement. Unlike their parents and grandparents, today’s retirees are not ready to spend their twilight years quietly. Those who have worked hard and played hard all their lives, we are told, will continue to do so — and many actually try. But that doesn’t mean we can defy the laws of nature forever. The fact that there are many more senior athletes who can run a marathon in their 70s and 80s doesn’t make aging a thing of the past. The fact that modern medical technology can treat most ailments and control symptoms nearly indefinitely doesn’t make us immune to disease. On the contrary, some studies have found that boomers are aging worse than past generations in a number of respects.
Of course, staying physically active at any age is an important ingredient for good health. Exercising regularly can prevent many age- and lifestyle-related illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, and will also help reduce stress, anxiety and depression, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).
Endurance and strength training continue to be important as the body ages, perhaps increasingly so. Stretching for flexibility and balance exercises to prevent falls should be added. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that older adults spend at least 150 minutes on moderately intense aerobics and 60 minutes on resistance training each week. Naturally, more time in the gym or on the bike path can yield higher benefits. But equally crucial is acting age-appropriately, knowing one’s limitations, avoiding injuries and accepting (grudgingly) that things are not the same as they used to be. There is no point in denying nature taking its course.
What I learned from my brief encounter with the Chinese tai chi practitioners was that there can be joy in doing less and achieving little — such as finding pleasure in simply moving one’s body with grace and gratitude. Realizing that didn’t make me feel old; it made me feel rich.
Eastsider Timi Gustafson, R.D., is a registered dietitian and author of the book, “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” For more on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).