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Posted: Friday, December 23, 2016

Tai Chi offers benefits from preventing falls to peace of mind

Modern medicine has given us many gifts that help us stay healthy and active as we grow older. In the last couple of decades, however, some medical researchers have been examining older approaches and therapies that have stood the test of time. One of them is Tai Chi, and one of the researchers who has extensively examined the benefits of Tai Chi is Dr. Peter Wayne, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, research director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Harvard Medical School, founder and director of the Tree of Life Tai Chi Center in Somerville, Mass., and author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, published in 2013 by Harvard Health Publications. 

Tai Chi has many proven benefits and is especially effective in preventing falls because it increases leg strength, flexibility, range of motion and reflexes—the key components needed to keep your balance. In fact, practicing Tai Chi can reduce the incidence of falling by up to 45 percent, Dr. Wayne says. Not only that, his research has suggested that Tai Chi may reduce the rates of bone mineral density decline, especially in older women, helping to lower the risk of fractures. 

There are four elements of balance control, Dr. Wayne writes in his book:

  • Musculoskeletal strength and flexibility
  • Sensory input, including the vestibular system in the inner ear, vision, cues from the pressure sensors in the soles of your feet
  • Neuromuscular coordination, and
  • Cognition, the thought processes that interact with the other factors that affect balance. 

One of the most significant cognitive factors that can influence balance is the fear of falling, Dr. Wayne says. Studies have shown that restricting activity, a common consequence of fear of falling, can actually increase the likelihood that you will fall. Part of the reason why is that restricting your activity can lead to muscle and bone weakness, lack of flexibility, and loss of balance. Fear of falling makes you tense up and can distract you while you are moving. 

Tai Chi, strength training and balance-specific training have all been shown to improve balance and reduce the risk of falling, Dr. Wayne writes. Tai Chi is effective because it addresses each of the elements of balance control. The constant shifting of weight from one leg to another improves leg strength, range of motion and posture. The slow, even tempo with which Tai Chi is performed focuses your awareness on your movement and activates your sensory systems. Tai Chi also combines movements of different muscle groups into diverse patterns, training coordination. And perhaps most important, Tai Chi reduces the fear of falling by enhancing relaxation, body awareness and confidence from better strength and coordination. 

People who begin Tai Chi classes in their 60s and even later in life discover that the slow, graceful movements are easily done. Although the movements are gentle and virtually without impact, Tai Chi is considered a low- to moderate aerobic activity, depending on how you perform it. Dr. Wayne believes it is safe and appropriate for people of all ages and fitness levels. It can even be beneficial to people who use wheelchairs and those who have chronic conditions ranging from cardiovascular disease to Parkinson’s. 

Tai Chi’s many benefits are available to Westminster at Lake Ridge members through weekly classes. The community also offers classes in Qigong, another Eastern practice that includes some of the same movements as Tai Chi, as well as a range of fitness classes from water aerobics to Zumba. Our commitment is to provide a wide variety of activities that enhance not only fitness, but all of the facets of life that keep our residents lively and engaged in body, mind and spirit. 

If you’d like to learn more about what this unique Continuing Care Retirement Community has to offer, please join us at one of our upcoming events, call us at 703-496-4708, or request information here.


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