Editor’s note: Wellness Word is an informational column which is not meant to replace a health care professional’s diagnosis, treatment or medication.

Tai Chi for Fall Prevention

Fall prevention is a pretty big deal. Around 2.5 million Americans over 65 are hospitalized for falls annually. That’s roughly 6% of our older population. Medical science has tried many tactics to prevent falls but none save for Tai Chi Chuan have met with much success.

The potential health benefits of martial arts, particularly Northern Chinese Kung Fu styles like Tai Chi Chuan and Ba Gua Zhang, have long fascinated me. However, it wasn’t until my senior year at Pitzer College that I was able to delve into this topic scientifically. Due to a great heap of luck I stumbled upon Dr John Milton, a neuroscience professor at Claremont. Weeks before our meeting Dr Milton had read an exploratory study out of Cambridge on Tai Chi Chuan. The study demonstrated that Tai Chi Chuan prevented falls, but failed to say “why”. Dr Milton was curious and I was thesis-less so an idea was born. We would create a scientific study to determine what exactly Tai Chi Chuan changed in a subject that would prevent falls.

The parameters of our study were simple. We randomly broke a group of 60 retirement home residents into three groups. One group would engage in a basic physical training regiment. A second group met with me three times a week for a Tai Chi class. The third was a control and changed nothing at all. All three groups would be subjected to identical physical examinations exploring many aspects of movement and balance.

That summer the experiment began. Three times a week I drove to the retirement home and taught my lessons and on Fridays Dr Milton and I would meet up and go over progress. It was a wonderful experience and the effort and enthusiasm of my students was truly inspiring. At the end of September the experiment ran its course and, much to our delight, was a rousing success.

The data we collected provided some of the first science-based evidence on the benefits of Tai Chi. Through our study we concluded that Tai Chi improves balance by making steps less cog-like and more variable.  Stride-to-stride gate variability, as it is called, is the relative distance between successive steps. A more variable stride is correlated to improved balance and fewer falls and Tai Chi is very effective at making strides more variable.

At the time of our study Tai Chi was already in the public consciousness. It was well known that Tai Chi was good for “health”, but no one was sure why. Our study helped begin the process of demystifying the art.

The Tai Chi study had wonderful anecdotal effects as well. My favorite that came from an 84-year-old retired cowboy. He told us that after practicing Tai Chi for just six weeks he was able to dress himself without assistance for the first time in years. The cowboy shook my hand and thanked me for returning some of his dignity. That moment forever changed how I view and teach martial arts.

Josef Haber L.Ac graduated from Emperors College of Chinese Medicine in 2010. He teaches classes in Zen Tai Chi as well as Ba Gua Zhang, Xing Yi and Capoeira at Portland Movement Arts, 503.928.2595, www.flyingtortoise.org.