Thursday, April 14, 2005

Creating Balance

Falls are one of the biggest dangers to elderly people. In older people, even a simple broken bone can have disastrous consequences, resulting in a permanently diminished quality of life, or short- or long-term stays in a nursing home. A good way to reduce the risk is by practicing the ancient Chinese martial art of Tai Chi. In a study at the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene involving 256 elderly people (average age 77), it was found that those who practiced Tai Chi experienced 28 falls, whereas control group participants who instead practiced standard stretching exercises had 74 falls. The incidence of falls was counted during six months of formal exercise training and for six months following the end of the trial. All study participants had been physically inactive for three months prior to the study, and most patients reported their overall health as good or better at the start of the study. Lead researcher Fuzhong Li, PhD, correlates the significantly lower number of falls for the Tai Chi group with their overall improvement in balance and coordination. These were measured by functional balance tests at the beginning of the trial, at three months, at six months and again at a six-month post-intervention follow up. The Tai Chi practicers who improved on the functional balance tests after six months of practice were the ones who had significantly less risk of falling during the six-month post-intervention period, said Dr. Li. An encouraging postscript to the study is that 66% of the Tai Chi group continued to perform some exercise after the study ended, while only 20% of the control group continued exercising. This suggests that, in addition to aiding balance, Tai Chi positively affected these formerly sedentary people to change to a more physically active lifestyle.
GENTLE, YET EFFECTIVE
A Tai Chi exercise program consists of a series of flowing, gentle movements, which involve constant weight shifting from one leg to the other. Tai Chi requires a person to continually coordinate lower body and upper body movements. In effect, a Tai Chi session is training in maintaining balance. Today, it is fairly easy to find a Tai Chi instructor. Tai Chi classes have become common offerings at local Ys and continuing-education programs at high schools and colleges. Although Tai Chi is certainly low-impact exercise, it's always a good idea to check with your physician before beginning a new exercise regimen.

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