March 27, 2000 (Venice, Calif.) -- On weekday mornings, the boardwalk in Santa Monica, Calif., is a whirlwind of power walkers, runners, inline skaters, and cyclists. Yet each day amid the hubbub, a group stands off to the side. With feet spread wide and knees flexed, they glide through a series of slow, controlled movements, such as the evocatively named "Wave Hands Like Clouds." They are practitioners of tai chi, an ancient Chinese martial art, and these days groups like them can be found in city parks across the country. Tai chi is good exercise, and for some older people, it could be a lifesaver.
One of every three adults 65 years or older falls each year, sometimes with devastating consequences. A fractured hip often signals the beginning of a long decline that can lead to the loss of independence and even death. But tai chi, research has found, may help prevent the falls that lead to fractures.
In a 1996 study that lasted 15 weeks, Steven L. Wolf, PhD, a rehabilitation medicine specialist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, assigned 215 people ages 70 and older to three groups. One group practiced tai chi three times weekly. Another got computerized balance training using machines that help people relearn balance after a fall. A third group did no exercise, but met to discuss issues relating to the elderly. Seventeen months after the training stopped, the tai chi practitioners had reduced their risk of falls by nearly half. Wolf believes that improved balance was mainly responsible for the improvement.
"Tai chi makes people think about how they're moving and gives them a better awareness of where they are," says Wolf, who is currently conducting a larger, 20-site trial that tests the stabilizing effect of tai chi. "And since tai chi involves swaying, it helps people practice their balance."
Since Wolf did his study, more and more senior centers have begun to offer tai chi instruction. You will find that gyms catering to people over 60 are another good place to learn. Or just head to a local park early some morning and follow along.
Daryn Eller is a freelance writer in Venice, Calif. Her work has appeared in Health, Fitness, and many other publications.