Improving Balance With Tai Chi

Looking for an exercise program that will help you—or aging loved ones in your life—improve balance and reduce fall risks? A tai chi class is a good choice.

 

Older adults are the fastest growing segment of our population. The group of people age 65 and older is predicted to double between 2000 and 2020. Our aspirations for living a vital, active life as we age have never been higher. Whether we are looking forward to our own retirement years, or anticipating cherished times with our parents as they age, we want these golden years to be filled with good health and happy memories.

An unexpected fall can cast a lasting shadow over these goals, and the risk of a fall increases as we age. One in every three Americans age 65 and older falls each year. This is particularly concerning when we know that falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths in this age group,

As we get older, we risk not only falling—but also sustaining a serious and costly injury as a result. In 2000, falls among adults age 65 and older cost $19 billion in healthcare dollars. By 2020, with our growing population of seniors, these costs are expected to increase to $43.8 billion.

The best way to mitigate the risk of falling is to participate in a fall-prevention program focused on improving strength, balance, and mobility. Some of these programs include instruction in tai chi, a graceful form of Chinese exercise. Tai chi teaches a series of postures that are performed in a slow, focused manner.

Tai chi practitioners move from one posture into the next without pause. Because tai chi is low impact and puts minimal stress on muscles and joints, it is well-suited to older adults. Medical studies have shown tai chi to reduce falls in seniors by up to 45 percent. It is an effective way to improve balance because it targets the physical abilities that help us stay upright, including:

  • Leg strength
  • Flexibility
  • Range of motion
  • Reflexes

This discipline requires no special equipment, can be performed outside or indoors, and can be done alone or in a group. Another advantage is the safety of the practice and its adaptability to a wide range of fitness levels. Some tai chi students have begun to practice while sitting in a chair or wheelchair, and later worked their way into a standing position.

The CDC evaluated the use of tai chi to improve balance for physically mobile adults 60 years old or older. They report that a 12-week program improved balance and inspired 90 percent of program participants to continue tai chi practice on their own—or with additional instruction.

One of tai chi’s biggest stability benefits is emotional, not physical. Older adults can become so concerned about a fall-related injury that they develop a “fear of falling,” which ironically increases their fall risk. As tai chi gradually makes practitioners firmer on their feet, it helps to mitigate that fear.

If the idea of tai chi is appealing, shop around for available classes, and choose one with an approach that is comfortable for you. These gentle, yet invigorating exercises help to develop the strength and balance we need to avoid the risk of a damaging fall.

 

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