Afraid of falling? Exercise with tai chi

As a Harvard researcher, Peter M. Wayne has

As a Harvard researcher, Peter M. Wayne has been involved in several studies on tai chi. One study showed that tai chi practitioners were less likely to fall on slippery surfaces than adults who didn't practice tai chi. (Credit: Handout)

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What's your excuse for not exercising this year? It's too cold? You're too busy? Perhaps the real reason is you're too afraid.

"Some of the barriers to participating in exercise are the fear of getting hurt or a fear of falling," says Peter Wayne, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. For those looking for a simple, safe and effective form of exercise, tai chi may be perfect. "One of the key things about tai chi is it's done mindfully, in a way where you're nurturing your body and not pushing it," says Wayne, a longtime tai chi teacher who wrote "The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi" (Shambhala Publications) with Mark L. Fuerst.

Tai chi started centuries ago as a form of martial arts, but today its graceful, fluid movements have been adapted to help older adults improve flexibility, strength and, most important, balance. "I'm fairly conservative -- I wear a hat as a Harvard medical professor -- and I would say one of the strongest applications of tai chi is to improve balance," Wayne says.

As a Harvard researcher, Wayne has been involved in several studies on tai chi. One study showed that tai chi practitioners were less likely to fall on slippery surfaces than adults who didn't practice tai chi. Wayne believes the reason balance improves goes beyond the physical benefits of tai chi. In the study, tai chi practitioners were more attentive and mindful to potential obstacles and distractions that could make them fall. "They're able to maintain their balance, even if they're thinking of something else," he says. Other studies have linked tai chi to improved cardiovascular health and better cognitive functioning.

Tai chi can be especially helpful for older adults who have sustained a fall and cut back on physical activity because they are afraid of falling again. Wayne says fear of falling is one of the biggest predictors of having another fall because people become tentative when they walk. "They hold their breath, they're nervous and they can't let their body relax, and their attention is distracted by fear," Wayne says. "One of the things tai chi does is it builds confidence. You feel your feet on the ground."

Many libraries and senior centers offer regular free or low-cost tai chi classes for older adults. If your library doesn't offer classes, a reference librarian should be able to help you find a library or center that does.

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