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Chair Chi

Tai Chi for Seniors


Updated June 18, 2014

Chair Chi
@Pat Griffith

Chair Chi is an exercise program based on the principals of Tai Chi Chuan, but designed for the elderly in retirement communities, assisted living, personal care homes, nursing homes and adult day centers.

Like many activity professionals, Pat Griffith didn’t grow up dreaming of working in long term care. He thought he was going to be an elementary school teacher, but his lifelong love of fitness brought him to a nursing home in San Marcos, California on September of 2001 and as it is for soooooo many of us, the residents kept him coming back.

Griffith is the founder of Chair Chi, an exercise program that requires no special equipment and can be used by activity directors at all levels of senior living from independent to residents with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. He is a certified Tai Chi Chuan instructor who has been teaching at health clubs, senior centers and senior facilities since 1997.

“I remember my mother telling me that I should try to get into senior facilities so I could help out a larger group of people than the few I was teaching for at the gymnasiums,” Griffith said. “One of the senior fitness instructors at one of the fitness centers where I was teaching came to me and asked if I would like to teach at her senior facility.”

Upon arrival at the facility, Griffith was met with thirty two residents who thought Tai Chi Chuan might be some sort of Chinese food! He conducted a stand-up class and realized the program had to be adapted for sitting and thus created Chair Chi. “I created a program where everyone can participate and benefit in a 30 minute session,” Griffith said.

Chair Chi is a gentle exercise program to help people receive the benefits of the traditional Tai Chi Chuan in the comfort and safety of their chair, Griffith said. The program allows people who cannot stand or lack confidence with their balance, such as those who use a walker, wheelchair, or have a movement disorder to participate and benefit from exercise. Those benefits include balance, flexibility, range of motion, strength, energy, pain relief, tranquility, stress reduction, and peace of mind.

It also helps improve breathing capacity for residents with asthma and emphysema, he said. While improving hand and foot eye coordination is helps burn fats and calories, lowers cholesterol, heart rate and blood pressure levels and assists in alleviating the pain from osteoporosis, osteoarthritis,arthritis, bursitis, tendonitis, fibro/polymyalgia and neuropathy.

A Chair Chi session works six major areas of the body:

  1. Neck
  2. Arms and shoulders
  3. Chest and back
  4. Abdominals and back
  5. Legs
  6. Hands and fingers

Griffith tells participants to picture being in a pool of water. He then instructs them how to move their arms to symbolically ‘push’ the water. The purpose is to have participants make a constant push/pull movement, isotonic training, that will work the muscles, and result in strength training without aggravating the joints which can cause arthritis, bursitis, tendonitis, etc.

During the 30 minute session there is a constant flow of one exercise to another in a process which will also help bring on relaxation and tranquility, as well as, an extension of range of motion and flexibility, he said.

“Approximately one-quarter of our residents participated in his program held each Friday. It was usually held in the peaceful surroundings of the courtyard with tranquil background music,” said Glenna Walch, the former activity director at the Villa Del Rey in Escondido, CA said. “The benefits of breathing, balance, and mental focus were greatly appreciated by the residents, as his class was among the most popular programs scheduled. The slow flowing movements and entrancing nature names of the positions make this exercise program even more interesting.”

Griffith has two senior fitness certifications, as well as a group exercise Certification. In April of 2004 he made a Chair Chi DVD and manual for use by activity directors. He teaches at twenty five senior facilities in San Diego.

Exercise in the elderly is vitally important. Muscle mass decreases as we age. Beginning in the fourth decade of life, adults lose 3%-5% of muscle mass per decade, and the decline increases to 1%-2% per year after age 50. Muscle mass can increase at any age in response to exercise. Studies have shown that muscle strengthening and balance retraining exercises in 1,016 older men and women (ages 65 to 97) reduced the risk of falls and fall injuries by as much as 35%-45%. Programs like Chair Chi should be incorporated into a well-balanced senior exercise program.

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