Falls among the elderly are a leading cause of serious injuries that can often require hospitalization, nursing home admission, and in some cases even death. Age-related health conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, dementia, and vision and balance issues can greatly increase one’s risk of falling.
A new study published this month in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggests that tai chi is more effective than leg strengthening exercises at reducing the risk of injury-causing falls in older people. Previous research indicates that tai chi may help:
- Improve balance and stability in the elderly and in Parkinson’s patients
- Reduce pain from knee osteoarthritis
- Alleviate fibromyalgia and back pain
- Enhance quality of life and mood in heart failure and cancer patients
Tai chi is an exercise modality developed hundreds of years ago in China. It incorporates gentle movements and postures, along with deep breathing and relaxation techniques. A tai chi session works with weight shifting, balancing, and leg stepping movements, and can be done walking, standing, or sitting, which makes it a highly effective and appropriate activity for older individuals.
How Tai Chi Can Reduce the Risk of Falls
Researchers divided 368 patients into two groups. All patients were 60 years or older and had undergone treatment for a fall. Tai chi instructors led the first group in one-on-one tai chi lessons once a week for 6 months. Lessons focused on gentle movements and balancing postures. Physical therapists led the second group in individual lower extremity training (LET) once a week for 6 months. LET sessions involved stretching, muscle strengthening, and balance exercises.
Participants of both groups completed at least 80% of their sessions and were asked to practice at home every day during the 6-month study and 12-month follow-up. They kept journals tracking their falls and reported back to researchers once a month.
The 6-month assessment clearly indicated that patients practicing tai chi were much less likely to suffer an injury-causing fall. At the 12-month follow-up, tai chi practitioners were still 50% less likely to fall than were those in the LET group.
If you’re looking for a gentle and accessible physical activity to help protect against age-related health conditions (and possible falls) consider enrolling in a tai chi class. Tai chi instructors can always modify movements according to your needs, so please don’t worry if you’re not flexible or if you have trouble standing. The beauty of tai chi is that it’s appropriate for all age and activity levels…and the benefits are, as research keeps showing, outstanding!