Yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi: What’s Best for Seniors?

Exercise remains a fundamental staple throughout our lives, no matter our age. However, as we age it is important to find low-impact activities to sustain a healthy lifestyle without danger of injury. Finding exercise routines that can also help prevent or manage certain health conditions such as diabetes, osteoporosis, or arthritis will take your life one step closer to a balanced state of wellness.

Key takeaways:
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    Pilates, yoga, and Tai chi are excellent low-impact, mind-body fitness forms for seniors.
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    Each form, while different, uses breathwork to decrease stress.
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    Low-impact, mind-body exercise results in increased flexibility, agility, strength, balance, and coordination.

Some of the most popular forms of low-impact exercises for seniors include yoga, Pilates, and Tai chi. What’s best for you? Read on to discover which one may be the right fit for you – or possibly a combination of two or three forms!

What is low-impact exercise?

Low-impact exercise is best for seniors because it is easy on the joints. The styles we are examining here are all examples of not only low-impact exercise but also mind-body fitness. Now, not all styles of yoga, Pilates, or Tai chi are going to be appropriate for seniors because they may move too fast or include advanced movements. What’s great about low-impact exercise is that it can be performed every day if you like, although a good rule of thumb is to exercise three to five days per week. At least one day should be given for rest and muscle recovery.

Yoga for seniors

Yoga is a spiritual discipline that consists of breathing, meditation, and holding physical postures that originated in India thousands of years ago. Today, it is popular worldwide in a variety of formats and styles. The breathing and meditation aspects of yoga practice help to calm the parasympathetic nervous system, therefore helping to regulate mood, anxiety, or depression. The physical postures themselves will improve flexibility and strength, as well as balance and coordination.

Seniors should avoid faster styles of yoga, including vinyasa, flow, power flow, or Ashtanga.


The best styles of yoga for seniors include restorative yoga, yin yoga, gentle yoga, hatha yoga for beginners, or chair yoga. These styles are slow and use props to support the body. If the practitioner is unable to move on and off the floor, they should seek out a chair yoga class. Additionally, learning to incorporate regular meditation or breath work practice in a comfortable seated position (even on a chair) has an immense benefit for the mind and body.

Pilates for seniors

Pilates is a system of exercises that focuses on the core. Joseph Pilates designed it during the 1940s World War II era in Germany. Originally called “Contrology”, it focuses on what is called the “powerhouse” of the body, which includes strengthening the abdominals, lower back, and hip regions.

Today, there is mat-based Pilates, which may or may not use extra equipment such as a small ball, weights, or a ring, and also machine Pilates which uses larger equipment such as the reformer, Cadillac, Wunda chair, and more. Usually, mat-based classes are held in a group setting, which can form a sense of community for the participant. The mat classes are appropriate for those who can still move on and off the floor easily.

Machine-based Pilates on larger equipment – such as reformer or Cadillac – is usually done in private sessions where you get one-to-one attention. Also, because the equipment is not on the floor, it can be easier for seniors to use. Additionally, with personal attention, your teacher can give you specific exercises for your condition and adjust the equipment as needed. For example, the reformer is a weighted spring-based machine and you may need lighter weighted springs than a younger client. Your Pilates instructor can cater this to you.

woman doing pilates

Pilates, while not a spiritual endeavor, is still a mind-body exercise because it uses the breath throughout the entire session. It helps create long, lean muscles akin to a dancer’s body, which is one reason it has become so popular, not to mention its rehabilitative benefits.

Tai chi for seniors

Tai chi has its roots in the spiritual culture of Taoism, originating in China as an internal martial art form. It uses the breath to connect flowing movements gracefully together, thus making it a mind-body exercise and movement meditation. However, some styles of Tai chi are more suitable for seniors than others.

There are several main styles of Tai chi, each more low-impact or vigorous than others.

Chen style

This is the oldest style of Tai chi, used more for self-defense but still incorporating some low-impact movements along with some explosive movements for those who seek more of a cardio-based workout.

Sun style

This is a newer form of Tai chi that has a higher stance rather than a lower, squatted stance seen in other styles. It may be beneficial for those with sensitive knees or hips as well as arthritic conditions.

Yang style

This style consists of flowing movements that are accessible to everyone.

Wu style

This style is similar to Yang's style but the movements are more compact.

man doing tai chi

It may be beneficial to decide which low-impact, mind-body exercise the senior citizen decides to participate in by doing research and consulting a doctor before starting a new exercise routine. If a senior wish for a more spiritual experience, they may choose yoga or Tai chi. If looking for a more rehabilitative scenario, then perhaps Pilates is the best option.

Each form can be modified to suit any level, ability, or age. You may wish to try a couple of classes in each form to decide what is best or perhaps mix it up weekly with two or three routines between yoga, Pilates, or Tai Chi. The exercises complement each other but even choosing one routine will increase the quality of life for the elderly.

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