Tai Chi Recommended As Top Exercise to Help Elderly Hone Their Balance

Dorian Martin Health Guide March 01, 2011
  • Balance continues to be an issue for my dad and for many others as they age. Recently New York Times reporter Karen Stabiner wrote that the American Geriatrics Society and the British Geriatric Society have updated their decade-old guidelines for the prevention of falls in older people. One of the new recommendations in the 2011 guidelines involved tai chi, which has been found to be an effective exercise to prevent falls. (The other recommendation is to have doctors review medications and try to reduce those that increase the risk of falling.)


    So what is tai chi? According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, “Tai chi is sometimes described as ‘meditation in motion’ because it promotes serenity through gentle movements — connecting the mind and body. Originally developed in ancient China for self-defense, tai chi evolved into a graceful form of exercise that's now used for stress reduction and to help with a variety of other health conditions.” Noncompetitive and self-paced, a tai chi routine calls for gentle physical exercise as well as stretching through doing postures with slow graceful movements. These postures flow into each other without pause so that the body remains in constant motion.


    Tai chi, also known as Chinese shadow boxing, has its roots in eastern medicine. Dr. Andrew Weil said, “Chi, also rendered as ch'i or qi, is a term from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) used to describe an energy flow that pervades the universe and sustains the living beings within it. It is a controversial concept in Western medicine, as chi has not thus far been detected via conventional laboratory techniques. The term ‘tai chi’ refers to the energy achieved by perfectly balancing yin with yang - held by TCM to be the two essential forces of the universe. Regardless of whether one accepts TCM's conceptual framework, tai chi can serve as a healthy form of low-impact exercise that can help to develop strength, balance and flexibility.”


    Weil noted that tai chi is a good exercise for people who have osteoarthritis or other musculoskeletal impairments, as well as hypertension, pain syndromes brought on by muscle tension, insomnia and fibromyalgia. Tai chi builds core strength and improves posture, balance, flexibility and mobility. In addition, tai chi promotes relaxation and focus, as well as synchronizes the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. 


    So how do you get started? The Mayo Clinic recommends that those who are interested in starting a tai chi exercise program should initially take a class or hire an instructor. Tai chi classes in many communities can be found through the community senior center, YMCA, YWCA, health clubs, community education programs, and wellness facilities. “A tai chi instructor can teach you specific positions and how to regulate your breathing,” the website stated. “An instructor also can teach you how to practice tai chi safely, especially if you have injuries, chronic conditions, or balance or coordination problems. Although tai chi is slow and gentle, with virtually no negative side effects, it's possible to get injured if you don't know how to do tai chi properly. It's possible you could strain your muscles or overdo it when first learning, or you could aggravate an existing condition. And if you have balance problems, you could possibly fall during tai chi.”


  • What should you expect when you exercise? “Since you will be moving your body, it is important to dress appropriately in clothing that allows freedom of movement,” Dr. Weil stated. “Tai chi typically starts with a five to 10 minute warm-up designed to center oneself, focus on breathing and awaken the flow of chi. The instructor will then take you through a series of movements - often with unique names like ‘Wild Goose Looks for Food’ or ‘Stomping on the Tiger's Tai’ - most performed in continuous, circular motions, while focusing on breath and posture. These movements will often last 25-30 minutes, typically ending with a five to 10 minute cool-down.”


    I’ve added tai chi to my dad’s (as well as my own) list of workouts to try in the near future. I appreciate Dr. Weil’s recommendation: “Tai chi is a wonderful form of mental and physical stimulation, great for overall health. Like yoga, tai chi is a good method of stress reduction and relaxation, and it promotes flexibility, balance, and good body awareness. It is beautiful to watch and do, and may be particularly good for the elderly, because it reduces risk of injury from falls.”