Tai chi for fall prevention

Tai chi for fall prevention
Swapnil Chavan

Tai chi also called taiji or tai chi chuan originated as Chinese martial arts in the 17th century. Originally was developed as a form of self-defence but over the years it has evolved and has gained popularity worldwide as a form of exercise and meditation, referred to as medication in motion.

This mind-body exercise is often practiced for its evidence based health benefits such as improving balance and flexibility, strengthening muscles and joints, fall prevention, pain relief from musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis, injuries of back and neck, fibromyalgia and other psychological benefits such as stress and anxiety reduction.

Dr Paul Lam, tai chi practitioner for 40 years and a founder of tai chi for Health Institute states, “At the heart of it, tai chi is a moving meditation in the form of a series of gentle exercises that create harmony between the mind and body. The ultimate purpose is to cultivate our inner life energy (qi) to flow smoothly and powerfully through the body. This is a spiritual experience, as much as a physical one”.

Principles of Tai Chi

A wise man prevents diseases rather than treating them, and prevents disorder rather than restoring order - Chinese traditional medicine

Tai chi is based on Chinese traditional medicine and laws of nature. Yin and yang, two opposing forces that represent duality of nature must coexist for attaining equilibrium. Balance is created when they both work together. Some real life examples are day/night, male/female, life/death, black/white.

Yin yang symbol

The energies of yin and yang also regulate the human body. External factors like poor lifestyle, improper diet, emotions, physical injuries etc. disturb the delicate balance, blocking qi (chi) the vital energy. Health problems crop up when qi (chi) becomes blocked or stagnant. The goal of Tai chi is to cultivate this life energy(qi) to flow smoothly in the body, relieving the blockages thus promoting good health.

Key Principles

Dr Paul Lam breaks down the practice into 3 core principles of tai chi.

  • Movement control: Tai chi is characterized by its slow, flowing and continuous movements that facilitate serenity and inner strength just like water flowing in a river. Move like a great river! When the water stagnates in puddles it invites dirt and diseases, however when it flows, it brings purification, gives life.

  • Maintain upright posture: Staying upright stabilises your muscles and spine giving more room for your internal organs, enabling better flow of qi(chi). Tai chi is about balance and emphasises being mindful of weight transfer in its movements. This is a critical step in fall prevention.

  • Internal components: Unlike other forms of physical exercise that push you to speed up, tai chi focuses on slowing down, gently stretching or loosening your joints, relaxing your muscles, cultivating your quiet inner strength and develop a state of mental quietness(Jing) by bringing our attention back to the present

Tai chi and fall prevention

Falls are common in older adults and can have a long term negative impact on physical and psychological health. Even if a fall does not result in physical injury, it instils a fear of falling which makes one more inactive and lose the confidence in conducting your everyday activities.

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there are multiple risk factors that can make one more likely to fall such as lower body weakness, muscle weakness, vision problems, foot pain, home hazards, Vitamin D deficiency, difficulties in walking and balance and effect of medications.

Systematic review and meta-analysis have shown that tai chi is effective in reducing falls in older adults. Tai chi movements focus on posture control, trunk rotation, weight transfer, strength training which are advantageous for improving balance and reducing falls as well as fear of falling.

Here's how tai chi can help in fall prevention

Improves balance: Tai chi involves slow, flowing movements that require shifting your weight from one leg to another. This helps to improve balance and stability, which are critical in preventing falls.

Strengthens muscles: Tai chi requires the use of various muscle groups, which can help in building strength, especially in the lower body. Strong muscles are essential for maintaining balance and preventing falls.

Enhances flexibility: Tai chi involves gentle stretches and movements that promote flexibility. Improved flexibility can make it easier to recover from trips or stumbles and reduce the risk of falling.

Increases body awareness: Tai chi emphasizes body awareness and mindfulness. A person learns to pay close attention to their body's movements and sensations. This heightened awareness can help individuals identify and address potential balance issues before they lead to falls.

Promotes mental focus and concentration: Tai chi requires concentration and mental focus as you move through the various forms and postures. Enhanced cognitive function can help individuals react more quickly to changes in their environment, reducing the risk of falling.

Reduces fear of falling: Falls can be frightening and adults who have experienced falls become fearful of falling again, which can lead to a decrease in physical activity and further loss of strength and balance. Tai chi can help reduce this fear by improving confidence in one's ability to maintain balance and prevent falls. A 2018 study demonstrated that performing tai chi exercises for at least four weeks could reduce fear of falling and reduce the risk of falls in older adults after 8 weeks.

Improves posture: Tai chi encourages good posture, which is essential for balance and stability. Proper posture reduces the risk of tripping and falling.

Tai chi Walking exercise

We have been walking most of our lives. Walking is such a simple and natural everyday exercise. Tai chi can improve the way people walk, making their gait more stable and their steps more deliberate. This can be particularly helpful in fall prevention.

Paul Read, tai chi practitioner and author of illustrated tai chi book describes tai chi walking in 5 steps:

  1. Keep your head up high on your shoulders and look straight ahead.

  2. Keep your centre of gravity low and your knees slightly bent. Do not lock out your knees, keep them soft and the joints open.

  3. Move one foot cautiously off the floor, peeling the sole of the foot slowly from the ground as though it were partially stuck with glue.

  4. With one leg raised, begin to place the heel down in front of you, slowly.

  5. With the heel now on the ground, roll the rest of the foot forward towards the toes. Keep your arms relaxed and at your sides and do not hold your breath!

To conclude

To benefit from tai chi for fall prevention, it's important to practice it regularly. Consulting with a healthcare provider or physical therapist before starting any exercise program, including tai chi, is advisable, especially if you have underlying medical conditions or mobility issues. They can provide guidance on the most appropriate exercises for your specific needs and ensure that you practice safely. It's important to learn the proper techniques and forms from a qualified instructor, especially if you are new to tai chi.

Tai chi could be a valuable addition to one’s overall wellness routine, promoting physical and mental well-being. It's a holistic practice that combines exercise, meditation, and relaxation, making it a popular choice for those seeking a balanced and mindful approach to health and fitness.

Tushima S Mashelkar is a Clinical Nutritionist, Habit Coach and Certified Tai Chi Instructor.

For more information , please visit https://taichiforhealthinstitute.org or reach out at tushima.nutritionwise@gmail.com

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