Your Location is set to:

Published on September 19, 2016

Keeping a leg up to prevent fallsKeeping a leg up to prevent falls

Worried about falling?  Consider tai chi.

With Fall Prevention Awareness Day coming up on September 22, a new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society strongly recommends this ancient Chinese practice as a critical – and enjoyable – way to improve balance, especially for those 60 years and older.

That’s been Lisa Bushy’s experience. A registered nurse with the Visiting Nurses Association of Cape Cod (VNA), she teaches a 24-week tai chi program and documents major improvements in flexibility, strength and self-confidence among older students who have experienced falls or are vulnerable to such accidents.

Her students also include those suffering from osteoporosis, joint diseases, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, and even Parkinson’s disease.

“Our tai chi classes, which are attended by about 12 people at any one time, are designed exclusively to help prevent falls,” explained Bushy. “It’s taken at a very slow pace, and requires a lot of concentration, but not aggressive exercise.

“It’s about mental focus, breathing and relaxation along with those postures and gentle movements. You can practice it walking, standing, even sitting.”

Age Does Not Matter

No matter how old you are, you can participate, said Linda Sanjaghi, who attends Bushy’s classes and now helps teach it. “If I live to be 100, I can do tai chi. I love it.”

Bushy refers to elements of tai (balance) and chi (energy) that are emphasized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [pdf]:

  • Balancing, which is the key element in preventing falls – and decreases with age.
  • Relaxing to lower your center of gravity and increase the load on lower limbs
  • Transferring weight from one leg to the other
  • Strengthening muscles, particularly the quadriceps
  • Reducing instability, low mobility and bad posture
  • Improving gait which can narrow with age
  • Enhancing posture through relaxation
  • Increasing mobility since tai chi involves moving from one stance to another in a slow, coordinated way.

“Tai chi is powered by the legs, steered by the hips and expressed by the hands,” explained Bushy, whose students range from 65 to 90 years old.

“I had two students recovering from hip and knee replacements, who took our course after post-surgery physical therapy,” she recounted. “When they arrived, they were barely able to get out of the chair. By the end of the first class, they were standing on their feet and feeling much stronger.”

Others take the tai chi course because they lost confidence in their balance and are afraid of falling, she said.

Research Confirms the Benefits

While Bushy shares years of anecdotal conclusions about tai chi’s benefits, recent research has empirically confirmed its effectiveness for balance.  The study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society assigned 368 people 60-years-old and older who had received medical attention for a fall into one of two groups.

The first group received hour-long individual tai chi classes conducted by tai chi instructors every week for 24 weeks.

The second group received individual, hour-long lower extremity training (LET) sessions for 24 weeks conducted by physical therapists. Sessions included stretching, muscle strengthening and balance training.

The researchers asked participants in both groups to complete at least 80 percent of their sessions, and also to practice either tai chi or LET at home every day during the six- month program and the 12-month follow-up. During the course of the study, all participants kept diaries and recorded any falls they experienced, and they shared their diaries with researchers each month.

After six months of training, people in the tai chi group were significantly less likely to experience an injury-causing fall than were people in the LET group. Even a year after taking the training, people who took tai chi were about 50 percent less likely to experience an injury-causing fall compared to people in the LET group.

Though participants in the study took individualized tai chi classes at home, older adults should learn tai chi exercises in a class, and practice at home at least once a day, according to the co-author of the study, Mau-Roung Lin, PhD, Professor and Director of the Institute of Injury Prevention and Control, Taipei Medical University in Taipei, Taiwan.

To learn more about tai chi classes with the VNA of Cape Cod, call 508-957-7400.