How Does Practicing T’ai Chi Reduce Falls?

Recently there have been a number of studies reporting that seniors and those with health issues such as Parkinson’s disease fall less frequently as a result of studying T’ai Chi. This conclusion agrees with the experience of some of my students who are seniors. The question is, what is it about T’ai Chi that reduces falls? Improved balance is definitely a factor, but there are additional factors.

Leg Strength. The increase in leg strength produced by practicing T’ai Chi helps substantially in avoiding falls. Many seniors—and even younger people—spend a lot of time sitting, which causes their leg muscles to atrophy. Often, the key to recovering lost balance, thus preventing falling, is a combination of mobility and leg strength. T’ai-Chi stepping involves having the weight on a stationary leg while it is bent much more than is required by actions in daily life. The resulting stretch of the quadriceps and other muscles in the legs not only increases adaptive ability but also results in a substantial increase in leg strength.

Awareness of Feet. Balance requires an awareness and sensitivity of the feet. Most people are not very aware of their feet, which are usually encased in shoes that prohibit movement and sensation. In practicing T’ai Chi, it is necessary to be acutely aware of the placement, angle, and weight distribution of each foot. This awareness then naturally carries over into daily life. Before a fall occurs, there are stages of losing balance. Loss of balance is often initiated by a foot starting to slip or rolling onto its outer edge. The greater the awareness of these signals, the earlier corrective action can be taken to restore balance.

Ease in Shifting Weight. T’ai Chi practice involves shifting the weight from one foot to the other and back, with an acute awareness of the amount of weight on each foot at each moment. This feature of T’ai-Chi movement cultivates the ability to more easily shift the weight from one foot to the other. Thus, when a foot slips or is faultily placed, weight can more readily be shifted to the other foot, thus averting a fall.

Sung. T’ai-Chi movements are done while relaxing the body as much as possible. So-called “sinking the weight,” or sung, results in the center of gravity being much lower, which means increased stability and less injury should a fall occur.

Vision. In T’ai-Chi practice, the eyes are relaxed, promoting greater use of peripheral vision. The use of peripheral sense-data is an important way of knowing early-on that balance is starting to be lost. Read how eyes affect balance.

Alignment. Correct knee, ankle, and arch alignment has become increasingly emphasized by T’ai-Chi teachers. When the alignment of the legs ankles, and feet is off, there is a tendency to avoid putting weight on the legs; after all, poor alignment is potentially injurious, and the body resists sinking into a leg that is misaligned. Thus the strength and mobility of the legs is undermined by wrong alignment. Read how to recognize and reverse wrong knee, ankle, and arch alignment.

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