“Deterioration of these four elements of balance control often leads to falls in older adults. Some 25-35 percent of the elderly over age 65 fall once or more each year. The likelihood of falling increases with age from 34 percent at ages 65-74 to 51 percent at age 85 and older.”
Two members attended my Tai Class at the Monroe Y this summer referred by their doctor because they were falling down. One member told me, “I don’t want to fall down!” Felt a little helpless as I didn’t know what to say … but I do now: “You’re not alone.”
Tai Chi for Balance: Why It Makes Sense
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 systematic reviews of exercise and falls prevention, Tai Chi may be one of the better exercises you can do. The diverse, multiple active ingredients inherent in Tai Chi allow you to compensate for deficiencies in the four body systems (musculoskeletal, sensory, neuromuscular, and cognitive) that underlie balance loss. Tai Chi’s gentle, gradual approach also makes it accessible for people of all ages and stages of fitness.
Tai Chi is a weight-bearing exercise. It involves a constant shifting of weight from one leg to the other, which facilitates improved dynamic standing balance and strength of lower extremities (legs, ankles, feet). Tai Chi also improves torso and limb flexibility and range of motion, which is an essential component for postural control. Good alignment and appropriate use of the core muscles and spine allow you to stand more erect, and standing erect promotes a more stable, grounded, less rigid, and less top-heavy posture.
Sensory and Perceptual
Tai Chi’s continuous, slow even tempos facilitates sensory awareness of the speed, force, trajectory, and execution of movements, as well as awareness of the 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 perturbations 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 with a history of prior falls stand a little more rigidly, breathe shallowly, are top-heavy, and their minds are anxious and preoccupied with not falling. All of these behaviors lead them to being less grounded and less aware of themselves and their surrounding environment.
Returning to the top of this post: One of the key solutions to balance problems is exercise. You are invited to visit Post #3 as any one of the exercises demonstrated there will help with balance. And to remember that fact we are not alone with our balance issues is an old favorite song by Laurie Anderson — “Walking and Falling!”
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