Tai chi may beat strength training and aerobics in a battle over which is the best method to help prevent falls among seniors, according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine.
According to researchers, a modified senior-centered tai chi program reduced falls nearly a third better in a head-to-head comparison with an exercise regimen that combined aerobics, strength training, and balance drills.
“This tai chi program better addressed the deficits that were contributing to fall risk,” said senior researcher Kerri Winters-Stone, a professor with the Oregon Health & Science University School of Nursing.
The centuries-old Chinese practice of Tai Chi involves a graceful series of movements that flow between different postures in a slow and focused manner. These movements are designed in a way to help keep the practitioner’s body in constant motion and frequently challenge their balance.
Researchers have long suspected that tai chi can help reduce risk of falling, says co-researcher Peter Harmer, a professor of exercise and health science with Willamette University in Salem, Ore, according to a media release from HealthDay.
The movements of tai chi require people to move in all directions, while traditional exercise programs focus more on forward and backward motion, Winters-Stone and Harmer note.
“The reality of how falls happen tends to be quite varied and a bit unpredictable. In tai chi, the movements are in these multiple planes,” Winters-Stone states. “You’re moving your body outside of your center of gravity and then you’re pulling it back. There’s a lot of postural responses.
“If you accidentally started to fall, if you had been trained in tai chi you would probably be better at starting to counteract that movement and regain your balance,” she continues.
In their study, the researchers developed a pared-down form of tai chi that focuses on eight fundamental movements most related to fall prevention. The trademarked program is called Tai Ji Quan: Moving for Better Balance, the release continues.
To see how well the program works, researchers tested it against both a traditional exercise program and a control group that only performed stretching exercises.
Researchers recruited 670 Oregonians with an average age of nearly 78 and assigned them to one of the three programs.
After 6 months, the tai chi group was 58% less likely to have a fall than the stretching group, and the traditional exercise group was 40% less likely to fall than people who only stretched.
Compared against each other, the tai chi program outperformed traditional exercise. People taking tai chi experienced 31% fewer falls than those who took strength training and aerobics courses.
“Not falling is a pretty complex physiological behavior,” Harmer comments, noting that you combine muscle strength with feedback from muscles and joints, eyesight and even hearing to regain your balance. “Tai chi directly challenges the integration of all those things.”
Although tai chi did work better, people following a traditional exercise program still gain a benefit, notes Nathan LeBrasseur, a physical medicine and rehabilitation researcher with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn, in the release.
“I would not discourage people who are actively participating in a strength and aerobic exercise program to throw in the towel and say, ‘Now I need to do tai chi,'” says LeBrasseur, who wasn’t involved in the study. “The real challenge is getting people to adopt and stick to an exercise program.”
Harmer adds that tai chi not only improves balance, but also improves confidence.
“We’ve found a major risk factor for people falling is fear of falling,” Harmer says. “People might have had a fall. They’re scared then of falling again, so they start doing fewer physical things so they don’t fall. It kind of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The modified tai chi program requires people to push themselves out of their comfort zone, breaking the negative cycle, Harmer adds.
LeBrasseur agreed that whatever the exercise, more should be asked of seniors if they want to protect their health.
“I do think we tend to hold back across multiple exercise interventions in terms of really challenging and pushing older adults with the notion it will lead to harm and injury, when in fact it probably will drive beneficial adaptations,” LeBrasseur shares.