Why Tai Chi classes can be so effective
For the elderly, the risk and consequences of falling can seriously reduce quality of life, their physical and mental health as well as independence. There is a huge cost to the NHS in both treating the resultant injuries, which can make up for more than half the admissions to A&E.
Such falls can be prevented, or at least the risk of falling can be significantly reduced (ref). Improvements to living conditions and regular exercise are both important in significantly reducing both a first and subsequent falls. Of the exercises available, research has shown that Tai Chi is one of the most effective exercises available, and is also the most cost effective (ref).
Falls Prevention (when considering non-external factors) can be considered to be a function of leg strength and balance. Leg strength specifically means the weight bearing muscles and the muscles around the knees. Balance is considered to be a function of the inner ear, eyesight and body awareness (or proprioception). Balance can be improved and maintained if at least 2 of these three things are functioning. It is in developing leg strength and improving proprioception that Tai Chi Classes are considered to be so effective.
Tai Chi Classes for Falls Prevention
Tai Chi classes, run with Falls Prevention as a specific objective, are becoming an increasingly popular activity amongst the 50+ age group. The feedback from these classes in the Highlands area has been very positive, with not just a reduction in falls, but also a marked improvement in mobility, balance and flexibility.
In this instance, the description of Tai Chi will include both exercises based on and drawn from the standard and traditional Tai Chi syllabus and from the Qigong tradition, in particular from the Daoyin school of thought.
The benefits of such classes can be looked at as being at 3 different levels, according to commitment and time-scale. While such levels are obviously hard to quantify and will vary from individual to individual, for the purposes of this paper we can assume that the Benefits will appear as follows:
Level 1 – Immediate
Level 2 – After 3 – 6 months
Level 3 – After 1 – 2 years
Level 1 Exercise and social benefits
The most important thing about the classes are that they are fun. There is a strong social element to the classes, and a relaxed and informal approach to the teaching. The classes are a good mix of practice, theory and partner-work. The teaching is fun and challenging. They are structured so that there is no penalty for missing classes, as few people can attend 100% of the time.
The is some evidence that attending tai chi classes has a beneficial impact on depression. This may be due to the social nature of the classes, but also the structure of the learning process and the relaxing nature of the exercises.
As a simple cardiovascular exercise, Tai Chi is an excellent way to maintain and develop a good level of fitness. The slow motion movements and clearly defined shifting of weight allow for certain muscles to be stressed in a controlled way, in the presence of abundant oxygen. Students should never be out of breath, nor risking any injury. The exercises require little space, nor special equipment and no up-front fees.
Level 2 Body Awareness
Attending the classes over a period of time will result in an improvement in the relationship between individuals and their own bodies. As a result of the structured exercises there will be a greater knowledge of the way their bodies work under different conditions, and where there are structural and physical limitations. There will also be improvements in the following:
• Balance – Through repeated controlled movements of the body weight
• Leg Strength – Through repeated cardiovascular exercise
• Flexibility – Through increased use beyond default or historical use
• Breathing – Through deliberate controlled expansion of lung capacity and slowing of the breath.
Level 3 Internalisation
Over time the awareness of an individuals own body will become more internalised and more instinctive. It will begin to feel “wrong” when the body is in an unstructured position. Individuals will become sensitive to the way their joints and muscles are responding to movements and stresses. The process of improving proprioception will increase as a result of movement becoming more controlled and structured.
The process of learning a new physical skill requires the mind to operate in a way that generally speaking hasn’t happened since early childhood. Much of the structure of classes is taken up with differing ways to help the learning process, which will be different for each individual. Over time the process becomes easier as people find the leanring process that suits them, and as they become more used to the process. This clearly has benefits for mental agility (ref).
Author: Douglas Hardie
Douglas Hardie is resident in Dingwall in the north of Scotland and is the Principle Instructor at Highland Tai Chi.