Reducing the risk of falling is one of the major benefits of Tai Chi
The technical definition of balance, or postural stability, is “the ability to maintain and control the position and motion of the center of mass of the body relative to the base of support.” The dictionary defines “the ability to move or to remain in a position without losing control or falling.” So technically, even the normal activity of walking could be described as a continuous process of losing and regaining your balance.
As we age, our risk of falling increases substantially
- Approximately 30% of the older adult population sustain a fall each year
- 55 to 70% of these falls result in physical injury
- 30% of those who fall sustain serious injuries and increase the likelihood of premature death
- About half of those who suffer hip fractures will not return home or live independently
- Only one in four fully recover
- About one in five will die with in the first year due to complications
- The estimated cost of falls in the United States in the year 2013 was $34 billion
The fear of falling is an increasing problem as we age, and is particularly prevalent in those who have balance disorders or a history of falling. Studies show that the tentative, physically tense, and mentally distracting behaviors associated with the fear of falling actually can increase the probability that you will fall.
Older adults who have a fear of falling are also more likely to be depressed and to restrict their activities and these factors seem to feed on each other. Fearful people are also less active, which leads to muscle deconditioning and loss of strength and balance. It is a bit of a vicious circle.
The good news about balance problems is that most are fixable, and many falls are preventable. One of the key solutions to balance problems is exercise. Whether it’s strength training, balance training, or Tai Chi, all have been shown to improve balance and reduce the number of falls. Based on a systematic review of exercise and fall prevention, it does appear that Tai Chi may be one of the best exercises you can do.
How does Tai Chi improve balance?
Tai chi addresses the four components needed for balance: musculoskeletal, sensory and perceptual, neuromuscular synergy, and cognitive ability.
Tai chi is a weight-bearing exercise. It involves a constant shifting of weight from one leg to the other, which causes improved standing balance and strength of the legs, ankles and feet.
Sensory and Perceptual
Tai Chi’s continuous, slow, even tempo facilitates sensory awareness of the speed, force, trajectory, and execution of movements, as well as awareness of external environment. With Tai Chi, your sensory systems become highly sensitized— which leads to better balance and function.
The rich diversity of Tai Chi’s movements—the sequencing, timing and combinations of different muscle groups—provides excellent training for the coordination of neuromuscular patterns. Research supports that Tai Chi can improve your dynamic balance as you move and help you recover from frightening disturbances in balance, for example when you slip on a wet sidewalk.
It’s highly likely that one of the primary ways that Tai Chi improves balance and reduces falls is by reducing the fear of falling and associated anxiety. Ironically, fear of falling is one of the biggest predictors of falls. Those who have a history of prior falls or who have impaired balance tend to walk in a guarded, tentative, ungrounded manner. They also stand more rigidly, breathe shallowly, are top-heavy, and their minds are anxious and preoccupied with not falling. All of those behaviors lead them to being less grounded and less aware of themselves and their surrounding environment.
Research is continuing to show the importance of Tai Chi
Researchers are just beginning to study how coordinating and managing the multiple mind-body components during Tai Chi training – that is, integrated arm and leg moves, continuously changing direction, memorizing sequences, breathing, and postural awareness and inner sensations — further enhance the handling of concurrent mental tasks during physical activities, such as walking down a flight of steps.
A study in Taiwan actually showed us that those who regularly practiced Tai Chi long term had greater bone density at the hip and spine. Another study shows that the rate of decline in bone density among Tai Chi practitioners was slower than among age-matched controls.
Getting started in a Tai Chi
One of the best things about Tai Chi is its availabiliaty to all ages and fitness levels. Tai Chi, unlike other forms of activities, is extremely low impact, doesn’t put any stress on joints and can be practiced at different intensity levels to customize the experience and physical demand. Personally, I have had students from 15 to 87 years of age and everywhere in between, though most of my students tend to be active older adults. To ensure safety and quality of a beginning or continuing practice, it is highly recommended to find a highly knowledgable and contentious instructor. Your practice should feel comfortably demanding for your body and your goals and nothing, and I do repeat nothing should ever “make you say ouch”!
Do a little research before you begin. If you are hesitant and not sure if Tai Chi is for you, look for classes in your community, and then visit some classes that are convenient for you. Most instructors should allow you to observe at no cost, or try out a class for a single-class drop-in fee.
There are different methods and styles of teaching. Find a teacher and a class that is right for you. Some classes may be taught with a more martial arts emphasis (Tai Chi’s roots are in martial application), some focus more on a mind-body approach. Whichever you choose, once you’ve tried a Tai Chi class, you’ll see how this combination of slow, gentle movements will increase your balance and stamina, relax your body and your mind, and give you “just-the-right” physical workout.
You may want to also read a balance-related article specific to Parkinson’s Disease.