Tai Chi Brings Balance to Seniors
Two recent studies report that older people may reduce their risk of falling by practicing tai chi, a form of Chinese balance-enhancing exercise, confirming earlier research. According to Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (2005;37:280–9), people who regularly practice tai chi have greater strength in the muscles around the knee and better balance. This improvement in balance is associated with a decreased risk of falling, reports another study in the same journal (2004;36:2046–52).
Practiced in China for the last 300 years, tai chi incorporates slow, sequential, continuous movements that rely on and enhance balance. Tai chi has also been shown to improve mood, decrease anxiety, and improve heart and lung function.
Sense of balance tends to decrease with advancing age, due in part to progressive loss of muscle mass and changes in the nervous system. Loss of balance can result in falls and injuries, often causing fear of activity, leading to even further deterioration in strength and balance.
Exercise programs designed to improve balance are helpful in reducing falls in seniors. One of the new studies investigated the effect of tai chi on muscle strength and balance in people aged 60 or older. Twenty-four long-term tai chi practitioners (defined as having practiced tai chi for at least one and one-half hours, three times per week) were compared with 24 nonpractitioners (controls). The following parameters were assessed in both groups: strength of the muscles around the knee that cause the leg to bend and extend at the knee, ability to balance on one leg under conditions of movement of the standing surface, and the participants’ own perception of balance.
Knee muscle strength was found to be significantly greater among regular tai chi practitioners than in the control group. Tai chi practitioners had much better balance under conditions of movement while standing on one leg than did the control group. In addition, people who practiced tai chi had better perceived balance than did the control group participants, suggesting that they would be more likely to maintain a healthy level of physical activity unencumbered by fear of falling.
The second study examined the sustained effect of tai chi on measures of balance control in 202 elderly people (average age 77). Participants were assigned to either a tai chi exercise class or a stretching exercise control group for six months. The tai chi group practiced a 24-movement style of the exercise for one hour, three times per week. The control group engaged in stretching and relaxation exercises according to the same schedule. Balance was assessed using three different measures at the beginning of the study, at 3 months, 6 months, and 6 months after the exercise interventions were discontinued. The participants also recorded the number of falls over the 12 months.
Over the 6-month exercise intervention period, the tai chi participants experienced significant improvements on all three measures of balance, whereas the control group had no change in balance. Six months after discontinuing the exercise intervention, the tai chi group had less deterioration in balance than did the control group, suggesting a lasting effect of tai chi exercises on balance. People in the tai chi group also suffered significantly fewer falls during the 6-month post-intervention period than did those people in the control group.
Taken together, these studies indicate that improved muscle strength and balance achieved by practicing tai chi reduces the likelihood that older people will fall. Tai chi can be learned and practiced easily, without the need for expensive equipment and trainers, and has not been associated with any adverse effects.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She is a co-founder and practicing physician at South County Naturopaths, Inc., in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp teaches holistic medicine classes and provides consultations focusing on detoxification and whole-foods nutrition.
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