The idea of walking across the Grand Canyon on a tight rope would be horrifying to most of us. Nik Wallenda (click here to read) did just that this past summer and without a harness! It must take incredible strength, balance and confidence to achieve a feat like that.
Unfortunately, for many older adults, contemplating engaging in daily activities is like contemplating a tight rope walk over a plunging canyon. A significant number of them fall every year and suffer serious injuries. This is because older adults usually experience a decrease in strength, balance and consequently confidence.
Maintaining balance is key in preventing falls. However, balance decreases as we age and therefore our risk of falling also increases. The good news is that balance may be enhanced with certain physical training. You may also relax because it does not involve any type of tight-rope walking!
Tai Chi is an excellent low-impact tool for maintaining balance. This is because Tai Chi addresses deficiencies in the four systems that your body relies on to maintain balance.
Balance involves maintaining and controlling “the position and motion of the center of mass of the body relative to the base of support.” Four body systems are responsible for keeping you balanced. These include:
1. Musculoskeletal: strength, flexibility and range of motion of your joints.
2. Sensory: vision, proprioception (a sense of our body position and the different body parts relative to each other) and the vestibular system (the sensory system that figures out our movement and balance).
3. Neuromuscular Synergy: groups of muscles acting together as a functional unit.
4. Cognitive: thought processes such as the fear of falling, anticipating tricky situations and the ability to pay attention to postural control.
How does Tai Chi Address the Four Systems Integral to Balance?
One of the major aspects of Tai Chi is that is weight-bearing. Weight-bearing is supporting your body weight against the force of gravity. The shifting of weight from one leg to another in Tai Chi strengthens your legs, ankles and feet while improving balance.
Tai Chi makes your sensory systems highly sensitized. This allows you to be more aware of your external environment as well as your movements. If you are aware of your body and your environment, you are less likely to fall.
Tai Chi movements involve sequencing, timing and combining different muscle groups. This helps train your body for the coordination of neuromuscular patterns.
The fear of falling often leads people to limit physical activity which in turn reduces fitness, strength and balance and consequently increases the actual risk of falling. Tai Chi helps alleviate this fear because strength and balance increases your confidence. Tai Chi teaches relaxation and emphasizes the coordination of the mind and body. A person who feels firm on his or her feet and is aware of his or her body and the external world is less likely to fear falling.
As you can see above, Tai Chi helps improve the four systems that help us keep our balance. These systems decline with age but not all of that decline is irreversible. Also, if we can strengthen these systems we can conquer the fear of falling. So, consider Tai Chi for balance. Once we conquer the fear, we are more likely to engage in more and more activities. I’m not saying that you’ll be the next Nik Wallenda, but at least walking outside the house won’t be a source of absolute dread.
Wayne, Peter, and Mark Fuerst. The Harvard medical school guide to tai chi: 12 weeks to a healthy body, strong heart, and sharp mind. Boston: Shambhala, 2013. Print.