We know that Tai Chi prevents falls. Studies have shown that Tai Chi reduces the risk of multiple falls in older adults by as much as 47.5%! We know the what, but why does Tai Chi improve balance control? What underlying mechanism does Tai Chi affect?
To maintain balance, you must have “proprioceptive acuity” and “precise neuromuscular control.” Proprioception is the sense of your body position and movement. Your nerves are constantly sending information to your brain from your tendons and muscles, informing your mind about the position, actions and coordination of your body parts. For example, nerves tell your body about the tension in a muscle and whether to increase or reduce tension, the length and speed of the muscle when moving/stretched and where the joint is positioned in that particular body part. Proprioception involves, “…conscious sensation (muscle sense), total posture (postural equilibrium) and segmental posture (joint stability).”
Studies have shown that proprioception diminshes with age, and is one of the reasons elderly people are more likely to fall. It makes sense that if you cannot sense where a part of your body is positioned or you cannot sense the length and action of the muscles and control contraction and movement, you cannot maintain the balance necessary to remain upright. Additionally, you cannot make the necessary movements to prevent yourself from falling when you lose balance. Therefore, proprioception is an important mechanism for fall prevention. Exercise is one of the ways that is thought to help improve and maintain proprioception. Tai Chi may be a great physival activity to help you improve proprioception. Specifically, consider Tai Chi for ankle and knee joints.
Tai Chi focuses on “conscious awareness of body position and movement.” It involves slow movements, shifting of weight and circular movements of the trunk and extremities, all of which employ proprioception. “In performing Tai Chi, awareness of movement sequencing starts from the feet, ankles and legs, and the strong thigh muscles are used to concentrate the movement through and around the turning of the hips and waist, with the latter acting as the axis around which all body movements are executed. The movements of tai chi are gracefully fluent and consummately precise because specificity of joint angles and body position is of critical importance in accurately and correctly performing each form. Acute awareness of body position and movement is demanded by the nature of the activity. Thus, it is logical that the practice of tai chi has benefits for proprioception…”
One study in particular focused on the effect of Tai Chi on the proprioception of ankle and knee joints in older adults who were long-term Tai Chi practitioners. Their progress was compared to that of sedentary adults, swimmers and runners. The results showed that the Tai Chi group showed “better proprioception at the ankle and knees” than the sedentary group, “but also better ankle kinestheasis than swimmers/runners.”
Tai Chi has a greater effect on knee and ankle joints because it involves a lot of semi-squat positioning which loads the muscles of the knee and the different postures in the different steps lead to more changes in ankle joint movements. One theory is that Tai Chi helps to retain the sensitivity of the “proprioceptors in the joint capsules, ligaments, tendons and muscles.”
Ankle movements are especially more important for older adults. Older adults rely more on hip movements to control posture when they move, while young adults rely on ankle movements. The fact that older adults fall more supports the idea that they should rely more on ankle movements. Perhaps older adults rely less on ankle movements because the nerves in their feet communicate less to the brain than they did when they were younger. Consequently, it is important to maintain and improve proprioception in the ankles to reduce falls. If Tai Chi is thought to help retain sensitivity in the proprioceptors, it may be a good choice to help you improve your proprioception and reduce your risk of falling.