Strength training is part of the bigger picture when preventing falls. If you can only engage in low-impact exercise then it’s likely walking is one of your top choices. However, Tai Chi may be more effective at preventing falls than walking. That’s because one of the main reasons older adults are prone to falls is due to dysfunctional gait. Tai Chi is a valuable resource for gait retraining, and may help realign your gait.
Gait is the sequence of how you move, and more specifically, how you move your limbs. You can read more about gait in one of older blog posts. People tend to fall during activities that involve shifting their body weight. This may be while leaning forward, when getting up from a sitting position and vice versa, as well as when going from one step forward or backward to the other.
Tai Chi is better than walking when it comes to gait training because it simulates more of the type of gait challenges you are likely to encounter during your daily activities. Tai Chi involves a longer double-limb support duration and shorter single-limb support duration than walking. When you walk, your body acts to move you across the ground with both your legs acting as sources of support and propulsion. When your practice Tai Chi, you perform slow, stable, even motions. The longer double-limb support duration trains you to maintain a more balanced and even movement. While walking mostly involves moving your feet forward, Tai Chi also involves moving backward, sideways, turning and fixing movements. The double-limb support duration during these varied movements is significantly longer when practicing Tai Chi than that experienced during walking.
Figure 1. (see sources at the end of the article)
Categories of step direction: (a) stepping forward—an anterior movement of one foot in relation to the support foot, (b) stepping backward—a posterior movement of one foot in relation to the support foot, (c) stepping sideways—a lateral movement of one foot in relation to the support foot, (d) up and down stepping—upward lifting of one foot above the knee height of the support leg, (e) stepping turning—pivotal rotation (medial or lateral) on the support foot with stepping action of other foot, and (f) stepping fixing or fixed step—both feet are fixed to the ground with no foot movement.
Tai Chi also involves longer durations of each single limb support than walking. This explains another reason why Tai Chi is a better choice to improve your balance than walking. A lot of transitional movements involve shifting your weight onto one limb and from one limb to another. If your movement is dysfunctional and/or your muscles are weak, you are more likely to fall during these transitions. When you practice Tai Chi (TC) you are also spending more time doing “double support patterns [including the] full double-limb support, left support with right toe touch, left support with right heel touch, right support with left toe touch, and right support with left heel touch.” These movements are performed at longer intervals than you would while walking, if at all. You would have to make a conscious effort to step-toe-touch while you walk down the street.
Figure 2. (see sources at the end of the article)
Foot support patterns: (a) full double-limb support, (b) single-limb left support, (c) single-limb right support, (d) left support with right toe touch, (e) left support with right heel touch, (f) right support with left toe touch, and (g) right support with left heel touch.
“In addition, the performance of TC relies on full double-limb weight bearing, full single-limb weight bearing, and single-limb weight bearing with other toe or heel semi–weight-bearing maneuvers. These patterns demand a high balance control capacity. The balance control of the center of gravity and the accurate adjustment of foot position during the practice of TC forces more muscles to be involved in the exercise, which may lead to increased muscle strength.”
Consider another movement that you perform in your daily activities – sitting down. You may not have ever put much thought into it, but when you approach a chair to sit down, you often do it by stepping backwards and then shifting your body weight down into the chair. When you are walking for exercise or just to get around, you don’t walk backwards. Tai Chi includes stepping backwards, which may improve the coordination, balance and strength you need to achieve those steps, and hence improve the normal, daily activity of sitting down.
Another source of falls among most people, and especially older adults is tripping over something. It may be an actual object in your way, or ground that is not level, or a raised step. One of the Tai Chi movements involves “…the stepping up and down movement, in which one foot is supported with the other foot raised from the ground above knee level and then downward to the ground…” practicing this movements helps older adults avoid tripping and falling because it trains them to achieve the up to three times level of foot clearance necessary when compared to a level gait.
Older adults are also more likely to fall than young people because older adults use more steps to turn. “In the practice of [Tai Chi], the turning maneuvers include one-foot support with other toe touching and internal or external pivoting, one-foot support with the other heel touching and internal or external pivoting, and even each foot touching with internal or external pivoting simultaneously. All kinds of pivoting maneuvers and many turning movements involved in [Tai Chi] are likely to improve the ability of turning.”
These are just a few ways in which Tai Chi improves your gait. If you you have knee and hip problems, your walking may be affected due to pain, restricted joint movement or weakening muscles. Years of poor posture when walking and standing may also lead to problems. If you are having trouble with walking, sitting, standing and or you are at risk for falling or fear falling, try Tai Chi to retrain your gait. Proper gait alignment and proper gait initiation can significantly reduce pain, avert damage to your joints and prevent falls.
Tai Chi versus Walking for Gait Training