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Practicing Tai Chi for Good Health

Tai Chi for Balance and Fall Prevention

Special to the Journal By Michael Costello, PT, MS, MTC


People around the world practice tai chi both as a martial art form and as a form of gentle exercise. One population in particular that derives significant benefits from practicing tai chi includes seniors who want to reduce their risk of falling. 


What is tai chi?


Tai chi is a martial art form that was developed in China in the mid-1600s. It focuses on strengthening the interaction between the mind and the body and is widely recognized in both Eastern and Western cultures for its health benefits. Through the regular practice of tai chi, you gain a better understanding of how your own body functions and the role that balance plays in achieving and maintaining good health. You also come to understand the concept of developing and strengthening your “qi” (chi) or life energy.


How can tai chi help me maintain health?


There are a number of specific ways in which tai chi enhances good health: (1) during tai chi you relax with intention, which augments your overall performance; (2) you gain both physical and mental strength; (3) flexibility improves (4) your cardiovascular function improves; and (5) your balance improves. Tai chi helps manage pain related to fibromyalgia, arthritis, and back problems. There is research demonstrating that tai chi helps to develop our immune functions.


Has the impact of tai chi been widely studied?


The effects of Tai chi are well studied, particularly in the population of people over 60 years old. The cardio-respiratory benefits of tai chi revealed by studies in China include improved resting blood pressure, improved oxygen capacity, and improved overall capacity of the cardiovascular system as demonstrated during exercise testing. Research has also demonstrated that Tai Chi practice improves strength, balance, and bone density. 


How does tai chi decrease my risk of injury from falling?


Tai chi is valued as a gentle way to begin to be able to exercise. The improvements in strength and cardiovascular function derived from tai chi help seniors regain their sense of balance. Tai chi also helps with proprioception (your sense of orientation in the space around you) by developing your ability to move with greater accuracy. With decreased swaying of your body and more accurate stepping, you are less likely to fall.


Studies of community-dwelling elders who take up the practice of tai chi show a decreased number of falls, and among those who do fall there are fewer injuries. Senior tai chi practitioners also have a decreased fear of falling; as a result, they are able to stay active and get out more because they have greater confidence. With regular tai chi practice, seniors gain strength in their legs, core muscles, and their ability to grip.


People of all ages find tai chi to be a gentle, effective way to recharge and relax. Whether you are in your first decade of life or your tenth, you will derive benefits from practicing tai chi.


Michael Costello is a physical therapist in the Department of Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine at Cayuga Medical Center and teaches tai chi at Island Health and Fitness. He is pursuing his doctorate in orthopedics and sports physical therapy and is certified in manual therapy. He can be reached at (607) 252-3500.

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