By Jamie Caulley, DPT - Clinical Advancement Lead in Balance Disorders, Providence Oregon Region Rehabilitation Services
Inside the State Office Building in southeast Portland, tai chi participants moved their hands gracefully, floating from side to side as their legs slow-danced over the floor. They advanced in unison, following the instructor’s lead and fluidly transitioning from one form to the next.
“There is power in the movement,” tai chi instructor Suman Barkhas explained to a group of healthcare providers learning tai chi at a training program sponsored by the Oregon Health Authority.
Tai chi is one type of exercise that helps improve balance and strength, especially in older adults. The evidence that tai chi can help reduce falls and their costly consequences is so strong that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded programs in three states to promote tai chi training among health care providers and community health instructors. Oregon is one of these states.
Falls are a serious health problem for people over the age of 65. According to the CDC:
- One-third of Americans over 65 fall each year.
- Falls are the leading cause of hip fractures and traumatic brain injuries in older adults.
- Every 20 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.
Fortunately, falls don’t have to be an inevitable part of aging. There are strategies to prevent falls, such as using tai chi or other exercise to increase strength and balance.
What is tai chi?
Tai chi is short for t’ai chi chuan, an ancient Chinese martial art practiced for both its health benefits and defense training. The “forms” of tai chi consist of gentle arm and leg motions performed smoothly at a slow pace, with the emphasis on weight shifting and postural alignment.
There are many styles of tai chi, including traditional (108 movements), short-form (24 movements) and simplified versions such as Moving for Better Balance (eight forms).
Moving for Better Balance was designed by Dr. Fuzhong Li, a researcher in Eugene, Oregon, to address strength and balance deficits common in seniors.
How does tai chi work?
The various forms of tai chi require information from the body’s three primary sensory systems used for balance: the visual system, the inner ear or vestibular system, and the proprioceptive system, which tells us about the position of our joints in space. Tai chi also calls upon the memory to follow and remember form sequences.
In summary, tai chi increases mental flexibility, which allows the body to maintain stability in a variety of challenging situations and thereby decrease the risk of falling.
The benefits of a regular tai chi practice can include:
- Increased memory and attention
- Increased confidence of movement
- Increased strength and flexibility
- Decreased fear of falling
- Decreased fall frequency and injury
- Decreased social isolation
- Decreased blood pressure in people with hypertension
- Improved symptoms from Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, depression and anxiety
Is tai chi better for older adults than other forms of exercise?
There are benefits from many kinds of exercise, but tai chi appears to be better than some others when it comes to preventing falls. A study in 2005 compared tai chi with other low-impact forms of exercise such as stretching and strengthening. Those participating in tai chi demonstrated a greater reduction in the risk of falling compared with participants doing other kinds of exercise.
Learn more about tai chi, and find a class in your community here.