Winter may be (gradually) on its way out, but slips and falls are still a very real threat for anyone spending time outside. For seniors especially, the general risk of falls—indoors or out—is higher than the rest of the population. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for those 65 and over.
Worldwide, 30 to 40% of people aged 65 and up will fall every year. For those over the age of 80, 50% will fall every year. Those are pretty significant numbers.
Why are seniors prone to falling? Many factors can contribute: poor vision, medications that cause dizziness, and loss of muscle tone leading to reduced balance and strength. External factors include tripping hazards and of course, icy and wet surfaces. Falling once doubles your chance of falling again. And, once people have fallen once they often become afraid of falling again, and withdraw from the very daily activities that keep them strong and less prone to falling.
Given that falls are so common and so detrimental to seniors’ health, it may come as a surprise that there is something quite simple that can protect against the risk of falls. New research published in the journal BMJ shows us that when practiced regularly, the ancient Chinese practice of Tai Chi provides substantial protection against falls in seniors.
What exactly is Tai Chi? Widely practiced in China, it is “a traditional systematic calisthenics exercise” that ” has been shown to be effective in improving balance, proprioception, muscle strength and endurance”.
The research in the BMJ is “the most comprehensive systematic review evaluating Tai Chi for preventing falls in older adults” and combines the results of 18 studies looking at 3824 participants from around the world. The results are striking: on the whole, people who did Tai Chi had 31% fewer falls than those who didn’t. Broken down into frequency, those who did Tai Chi once a week had 5% fewer falls, while those who did Tai Chi three or more times per week had an incredible 64% fewer falls.
So what makes Tai Chi so good at protecting against falls? It’s a whole body practice, and the movements are methodical. All the body’s joints are worked as balance is shifted from one leg to another. It’s also highly accessible: no special or expensive equipment is needed, it cane be done anywhere, solo or with a group. There are several different styles of Tai Chi, and the research found that Yang style Tai Chi seems to be more effective than Sun style Tai Chi.
Curious about Tai Chi but don’t know where to begin? Check your local seniors center for classes, do a search on YouTube, or borrow some DVDs from the library.