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For Chinese seniors, the key to keeping fit is rarely found in a gym – and is often found walking backwards.

Here, the path to a longer and healthier life is often sought out in parks, on sidewalks and other al fresco areas large enough to perform a diverse brand of calisthenics and traditional massages.

Tai Chi

Dr. He Jinsen of the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine (SHUTCM) explains the health benefits of the most popular forms of TCM exercises.

At the very least, reading this article will help keep you prepared so you won’t freak out the next time you see somebody start clapping and yelping randomly in public.

Walking Backwards

How to spot it: Someone slowly walking backwards, usually in an open, quiet area to prevent bumping into others. Occasionally, people will also be simultaneously clapping.

Why you should do it: Walking backwards is a good way to relax back muscles, according to Dr. He. Walking backwards also benefits the kidneys and relieves back pain, he says.

“[Elderly people] have weaker muscles,” he explains, “and this exercise can strengthen different muscles compared with walking forward.”

How to do the move: Find a place without a lot of people and start walking backwards, simple as that. Make sure to designate a small path about 20 to 30 meters long. For those weary of stepping into crowded walkways/roads, using chalk certainly helps.

Tree Hitting

How to spot it: If you see someone slapping a tree (撞树), chances are they’re not venting their frustration, but doing self-massage. You can find this resourceful form of massage being performed in parks and on Shanghai’s tree-lined streets.

Why you should do it: Though a common exercise, Dr. He says that it “doesn’t really help, and it might not be good for the tree either.”

The only thing it might do is stimulate the acupressure points in the hands. And, if you’ve had a long day and need to vent, who says smacking a tree around can’t also help get some of that anger out?

How to do the move: Tree hitting is done in varying degrees from tapping to slapping using the arms, legs and face. To do it correctly, do several repetitions on each side of your cheeks, inner calves and forearm and palms, focusing on one section of the body at a time.

Arm Massage

How to spot it: This self-administered massage is usually done while sitting down, notably on park benches. You’ll see people slapping their arms starting at the shoulder and moving down to the hand.

Why you should do it: Our expert approves of this exercise because it helps circulation and, simply put, just “feels comfortable.” For those well into their golden years, arm massage offers a way to take the load of the legs while still receiving the benefits of a simple exercise.

How to do the move: Start at the shoulders and work your way down to your hand. Rotate your arms after a minute or so and then continue. Use an open or closed hand depending on your preference.

Leg Swinging

How to spot it: Look for people holding onto a rail or fence, although those who are practicing their balance as well will often do it without support. This form of exercise is carried out by doing robust leg swings.

Why you should do it: “Elderly people have bad legs,” says Dr. He. “The lower body needs exercise because it’s the farthest point from heart, which means it gets less circulation.”

How to do the move: Stand still and swing your legs like a metronome, pushing your leg as far is it can go. After a few repetitions, switch. Make sure there are no children nearby to prevent punting one.


How to spot it: Just because you’ve lost half your teeth doesn’t mean you can’t get down. Keep an ear out for the crackly shrill of old Chinese ballads and find your way towards the group of people in the middle of a vivacious jig, or what appears to be the waltz, salsa or rumba.

Why you should do it: In the words of Wang Mei, one of Dr. He’s patients, “[While dancing disco] you can be happy while losing weight.”

As far as the doctor is concerned, this type of dancing “combines valuable social interaction and slow movements. Senior citizen disco,” he continues, “is the best exercise for elderly people.”

How to do the move: Get a stereo and head to the park or join in with a group of dancers. For the aforementioned classical forms of dance, grab a keen gent or lady and get going with your arm around his/her waist, occasionally giving in to an unannounced dip.

And if you don’t have a partner, don’t worry, solo performances are as common as they are welcome.

Baduanjin Eight-Section Silken Exercise

How to spot it: At first glance, the Baduanjin (八段锦) form of qigong (气功) looks similar to tai chi. A combination of eight stretches and exercises, it gets its name because practitioners flow through eight “silk-like” movements.

Why you should do it: When it comes to any form of qigong, “the health benefits are numerous,” says Dr. He. Practitioners of qigong believe that by tuning into their breath through physical activity, they can become more aware of their mind and body.

A major benefit of all forms of qigong, says Dr. He, is the “improvement of the immune system and the added prevention against diseases that affect the metabolism.”

How to do the move: If you are serious about learning baduanjin, it’s best to get an instructor as there are several schools to choose from and it’s hard to discern the most personally beneficial.

One form that Dr. He likes will have you mimicking the movements of different animals, including tigers, deer, bears and cranes.

Taichiquan and Taichijian (Taichi Swordplay)

How to spot it: Look for the people standing in place and moving their appendages as if they were caught in a capricious breeze. Some forms of this tai chi incorporate the use of weapons, such as a sword or staff which are easy to spot in local parks.

Why you should do it: Similar to baduanjin, tai chi can put you in touch with your body and mind. Along with “senior citizen disco,” says Dr. He “tai chi the most beneficial form of exercise for the elderly.”

Dr. He credits tai chi (and all forms of qigong) for “having the ability to lower blood fat levels, uric acid build up and blood sugar.”

How to do the move: Tai chi is technically a martial art, but can be performed using “soft techniques.”

There are many styles of tai chi, but the ones most beneficial for longevity consist of various solo hand routines and postures. Head to any Shanghai park in the early morning hours and hop in with the group of people who are sure to be there practicing.

Mulan Fan Dance

How to spot it: As you might suppose from the name, this dance incorporates a fan that is flapped about, usually while listening to slow music. Some schools of tai chi call for a metal fan, but according to our TCM doctor, the fan dance popular in Shanghai is separate unto itself.

Why you should do it: Similar to other styles of dance, the mulan fan dance is beneficial for body building and preventing muscular dystrophy. Dancing, Dr. He says, is also a good way to “prevent blood vessel diseases in the heart and brain.”

How to do the move: Find yourself a fan and join up for a fan dancing class in the larger Shanghai parks. People’s Square Park is often a good bet.

Groups of people commonly congregate under the guidance of an instructor; however, if you know the moves already, no such group is required to get the benefits Dr. He describes.

Shouting & Clapping

How to spot it: Someone will be walking and clapping while intermittently belting out deep, guttural yelps.

Why you should do it: “Shouting is good for the heart and lungs,” says Dr. He. And, since other exercises can be too strenuous for some people, clapping offers a readily available choice of massage.

“In Chinese traditional medicine,” says Dr. He, “[we] believe the palm of the hand has many acupuncture points. Clapping is a simple way to massage these points.”

How to do the move: Walk while clapping your hands in comfortable intervals in front and behind you. Every four to five steps, let out a shout from the diaphragm.

Arms To Heaven

How to spot it: Someone will be walking back and forth with their arms raised.

Why you should do it: This is a variation of the first exercise of baduanjin (in some schools). Raising your arms into the air is a simple way of practicing qigong, in this case helping to facilitate the flow of qi, explains Dr. He

How to do the move: Mark out a designated area and walk back and forth with your hands in the air. After every lap, let your hands go and slap your waist a bit.


10 Traditional Chinese Exercises For A Longer Life
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