Tai Chi May Reduce Falls in Older Adults

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Question: They're starting a tai chi class at our senior center. Do you think this is worth taking?

Answer: Tai chi (tie-chee) has helped many people feel better. However, you should check with your doctor first to see if this form of exercise is okay for you.

Tai chi is practiced all across China, where it was developed in the 12th century. It's common in Chinese hospitals and clinics. In Asia, tai chi is considered to be the most beneficial exercise for older people, because it is gentle and can be modified easily if a person has health limitations.

Tai chi began as a martial art and evolved into a series of fluid movements that relax and stimulate the body and mind. Tai chi is based on chi (or qi), vital energy that is believed to flow throughout the body and regulate a person's physical, spiritual, emotional and mental balance.

Advocates of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), say chi is affected by yin (negative energy) and yang (positive energy). When the flow of chi is disrupted and yin and yang are unbalanced, the condition leads to pain and disease, according to TCM.

A person doing tai chi progresses slowly and gracefully through a series of movements while breathing deeply and meditating. Tai chi has been called moving meditation. The entire body is always in motion during tai chi. All the movements are performed at one speed.

Tai chi can include dozens of movements. The simplest style of tai chi is limited to 12 movements. These include such colorful names such as grasp bird's tail, carry tiger to the mountain and step back to repulse monkey.

Research suggests that tai chi may offer many benefits that include: reduced stress, anxiety and depression; improved flexibility, strength, balance and coordination that lead to fewer falls; improved sleep; reduced bone loss in women after menopause; lower blood pressure; better cardiovascular fitness; relief of chronic pain and stiffness, and higher immunity to shingles.

Reducing the number of falls is especially important to seniors because falls in older people can be serious. We heal more slowly as we age. And, osteoporosis, arthritis, and weak cardiopulmonary systems can delay rehabilitation and prevent full recovery.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 33 percent of Americans age 65 or older have at least one serious fall each year. About 60 percent of falls occur at home during normal daily activities. With seniors leading increasingly active lifestyles, hip fractures have steadily increased.

Tai chi is generally a safe activity, but you can hurt yourself if you don't do it properly. It's possible you could strain yourself or overdo it when first learning. The best way to learn tai chi is from a qualified tai chi instructor. Tai chi class are offered at not only senior centers, but at the Ys, health clubs, and community centers.

If you want to learn at home, you can get tai chi instructional videos. You can also learn online at the website of the Stanford Health Promotion Resource Center at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California. This website includes film clips and text to teach tai chi. I'm studying tai chi online myself.

If you would like to read more columns, you can order a copy of "How to be a Healthy Geezer" at www.healthygeezer.com

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Fred Cicetti is a contributing writer for Live Science who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter, rewriteman and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey: The Newark News, Newark Star-Ledger and Morristown Record. He has written two published novels:" Saltwater Taffy—A Summer at the Jersey Shore," and "Local Angles—Big News in Small Towns."