In today’s world of high-intensity fitness fads, one might wonder whether tai chi—characterized by its slow, deliberate movements—is a worthwhile workout. But the ancient Chinese practice has been linked to myriad health benefits, from improved immunity to lower blood pressure to reduced inflammation. Now, a new review of research says it may help older people avoid dangerous falls, as well.
Published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, the review analyzed results from 10 randomized controlled studies that looked at potential ways to reduce the risk of falling in adults who were older or disabled in some way. Each study compared tai chi with usual care or another intervention, like physical therapy or other forms of low-intensity exercise. Tai chi classes were an hour long, and people did them one to three times a week for 12-26 weeks.
After reviewing these studies, researchers from the University of Jaén in Spain concluded that there was “high-quality evidence” that tai chi reduced the rate of falls by 43% within the first year of learning the practice—and 13% after the first year—compared to other interventions.
Tai chi focuses on flexibility and whole-body coordination, and previous research suggests that its ability to protect against falls may be related to “an improvement in the reaction time, gait, balance, and balance recovery,” the authors wrote. Other exercise or physical therapy programs may provide these benefits as well, but studies have also suggested that tai chi—which is often taught in parks and at community centers—is more cost-effective for older adults.
Falling is the primary cause of traumatic death for older adults, and more than 17% of older adults report between one and five falls in the past three months. The problem seems to be getting worse. Self-reported falls among adults ages 65 and older increased from 28% in 1998 to 36% in 2010.
More research is needed to determine just how beneficial tai chi really is in preventing or delaying the occurrence of serious falls. But overall, the study authors concluded that the mind-body practice “may be recommended to prevent falls in at-risk adults and older adults, especially over the short term, and may have a protective effect on the incidence of injurious falls.”