By Wilma Bedford
You may be far from actual retirement and have already made sure that you invested wisely to provide in your financial needs, but have you invested in your body’s health, balance and stability? If not, consider tai chi; you are never too old for it. You only need comfortable flat shoes.
With age comes the daily warning: don’t fall and no matter how careful you are, there is always a small carpet, an uneven sidewalk, a pet or toys in the way, ready to trip you. You actually fall because your body cannot figure out how to remain stable and tai chi will help in this regard. Tai chi in essence entails movements where, when you are in in danger of falling, you move forward or sideways; your body learns how to remain stable when you find yourself in an off-kilter position.
What is tai chi? It is a centuries-old Chinese art of war that entails a set series of choreographed movements with the aim of promoting physical and mental health, as well as posture, balance, resilience and strength. A further advantage is the strengthening of the immune system, pain relief, promoting heart wellness and keeping the mood healthy.
More and more research maintains that tai chi should be applied in addition to primary health care for the prevention and treatment of health conditions associated with age and to improve a patient’s quality of life and daily functioning.
Tai chi strengthens the muscles of both the upper- and lower body as well as the core muscles of the back and stomach, but its greatest contribution is improving balance and in so doing preventing falls. The ageing body loses the ability to determine position in space, which causes uncertainty and ensuing falls. Tai chi restores this ability, improves muscle strength and resilience, which will prevent you from falling. It is in actual fact the fear of falling that causes you to fall.
The most obvious is to keep your legs strong and to do specific balance exercises, but even if you are strong, you still lose balance and fall. Balance is not a skill and is not in inborn ability or acquired through memorising, repetition or being strong. It is something the body does automatically by using the posture muscles – as in cycling – but given the amount of time we sit, the body has forgotten how to maintain balance. With tai chi, movement does not take place to gain balance, but the principle is first balance then movement. The key to good balance and stability is the ability to use downward strength that forces the posture muscles to balance the body and shift the body weight as needed; a surfer, for example, cannot stay upright on his surfboard.
Tai chi’s adapted exercises entail a semi-crouched position, bent knees, bent ankles like those of a surfer or somebody skiing, and the transfer of weight to keep balance. The purpose it to maintain a connection with the ground so that when you fall, instead of lifting your shoulders and falling forward, you bend your knees and ankles and fall to the ground.
The exercises are isometric – there is no robust movement that will build visible overdeveloped muscles, but internal muscle strengthening will be promoted. The posture muscles are contracted, the tension is maintained for as long as possible, which leads to both muscles and legs being strengthened. The feet learn to be more anchored to the ground while the body moves on this firm base.
If you aren’t able to join a club, you can still download beginner’s exercises from websites. Home exercises don’t need equipment, just your own body.
Walking, how healthy it might be for other reasons, doesn’t promote balance. Walking on an even surface does not exercise and strengthen the posture muscles as the knees lock and the feet touch the ground only for a few seconds.
A simple home exercise is to stand on one leg while brushing your teeth, but you can make the posture muscles work by bending the knee and ankle of the leg on which you are standing, while the stomach muscles remain relaxed. The aim is to stand without support and only use your finger against the wall to support you until you have gained your balance.
Another simple exercise is to stand upright with your buttock muscles relaxed, then bending your knees and ankles as if you are taking your seat on a high bar stool. Maintain and practise this position until your posture muscles are strong and you can stand like this for 15 minutes.
With age, bones become brittle and broken bones don’t mend easily. This is accompanied by a long recovery process that diminishes joy and quality of life, impairs living independently and causes fear for more falls. Tai chi is the ideal way to improve balance as it entails slow, purposeful movements and breathing, over and above which it is an enjoyable investment in your own health and wellbeing.
Improving Your Balance to Prevent Falls
Jane E. Brody Dec. 14, 2020 Personal Health New York Times
The health benefits of tai chi
August 20, 2019 Harvard Women’s Health Watch Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-health-benefits-of-tai-chi
Deadly Falls in Older Americans Are Rising. Here’s How to Prevent Them.
Katie Hafner June 4, 2019 New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/04/health/falls-elderly-prevention-deaths.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article