According to the dictionary, balance, used as a noun, means “an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady.” In the Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, Dr. Peter Wayne describes it as “balance or postural stability, is the ability to maintain and control the position of the center of mass of the body relative to the base of support”.
Why is balance so important? In 2014 alone, older Americans experienced 29 million falls causing seven million injuries and costing an estimated $31 billion in annual Medicare costs, according to a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Besides being very costly, this often heralds the end of independence in older adults.
Balance requires many systems in the body to interact and coordinate in precise and complex ways. Generally four systems must work together to keep you from falling;
1. Musculoskeletal system – Your muscle strength and flexibility, including the range of motion in the joints. Unless you are a dedicated gym person, muscle strength decreases 40-60% between the ages of 20 and 70. Ankle flexibility declines 50% in women and 35% in men. Add in loosing spinal flexibility and the combination can lead to not if you will fall but when you will.
2. Sensory – the brain receives input messages from the eyes, pressure receptors in your feet, and the vestibular system in your inner ears. As we age the quality of these inputs declines and the body cannot judge as accurately as it once did where we are in space and how quickly it can adapt to changes.
3. Neuromuscular – some groups of muscles work together in a functional unit to make moving more efficient. For example, several muscles must work contract in a coordinated fashion for you to take a step. If there is any disturbance to this pattern, it could precipitate a fall.
4. Cognitive – What you are thinking about can have an impact on your chances of falling. Studies have shown that mentally distracting behaviors such as anxiety, being physically tense and fear can increase the probability of a fall. If you are distracted or trying to multi-task while you are moving can also increase you probability of falling.
How can Tai Chi help you to improve your balance and reduce your risk of falls?
Tai Chi is one activity that studies have shown that can have a positive impact on all four of the balance systems mentioned above.
1. Tai Chi is weight bearing, involving constant shifting of weight from one leg to another. It also improves torso and limb flexibility and range of motion.
2. The slow flowing movements of Tai Chi facilitate sensory awareness of the speed, force, trajectory and execution of each movement. Going slow is what leads to more awareness of where you are in space.
3. The diversity of Tai Chi’s movements, the sequences, timing and use of different muscle groups in different combinations challenge in a gentle way the neuromuscular patterns in the body. This helps improve your dynamic balance and helps you recover from any slips or disturbance in the balance.
4. When you are focused on your Tai Chi movements, your mind is engaged in one activity and not “scattered”. Breathing slows and a sense of peace and well being can be engaged. You are not over thinking things, worried about what you need to do later in the day, you are mindful of where you are in what you are doing. You are meditation in motion.
Try a class, find your center. Most instructors will let you try a class for free. Tai Chi is progressive, the more you do the better and faster you will perfect your art of balance!
In peaceful practice,