Studies have shown that instability and falling are among the leading causes of injury and death among the elderly.1,2 In fact, seniors are hospitalized for fall-related injuries five times more often than from all other causes of injury.1,2
As staggering as this is, there is a silver lining. The ancient Chinese practice of tai chi has been shown to enhance balance and coordination,3 while also helping to improve bone density and reduce a senior’s risk of falling.4,5
Given this, two researchers from Ithaca College and Indiana University postulated that perhaps the reason tai chi was effective was that it helped individuals develop better posture control, while also improving the spinal reflex pathway that is key to posture control.6
Let’s take a closer look.
Testing Postural Sway and Reflex Reaction
Sixteen healthy participants took part in the study, and eight of the 16 had been practicing tai chi regularly for at least three years. Regularly was defined as practicing three times a week for one to two hours per session. The other eight participants had never done tai chi.
Each person was tested for approximately two hours, completing a postural sway test and a reflex test. The postural sway test basically looked at the person’s ability to stand for 15 seconds under four different situations:
- Standing still with eyes open
- Standing still with eyes closed
- Standing still and turning head to the left and right with eyes open
- Standing still and turning head to left and right with eyes closed
The reflex test used an electrode on the back of each person’s calf to elicit an H-reflex. Also called the Hoffmann reflex, the H-reflex is useful in determining “modulation of monosynaptic reflex activity in the spinal cord.”7
Of course, this makes no sense to the majority of us laymen, so I had to decode this scientific jargon.
Basically, reflexes react in a neural pathway that control actions related to that reflex. (Think of the knee tap that makes your leg jerk up.) These reflexes involve two different groups of neurons: sensory neurons and motor neurons. When just one of each neuron is involved, it’s called a monosynaptic reflex. Those involving more than one neuron from each group are considered polysynaptic.
In more evolved animals such as humans, the majority of sensory neurons don’t go through the brain. Rather, they join up in the spinal cord.
So, by testing the H-reflex, researchers wanted to determine the reflex action of a sensory and motor neuron found in the back of the calf when stimulated by a low-level electrode. The reason? Less response can be equated with better motor control.
To best assess the H-reflex, researchers tested participants laying down as well as standing up.
Tai Chi Keeps You Stable
The results were pretty amazing. When it came to postural sway, those participants who practiced tai chi had significantly less sway. In fact, with their eyes open, they had 14 percent less sway. With eyes closed, it was 30 percent. Turning the head with eyes open demonstrated 33 percent less sway, and turning with eyes closed showed 23 percent less sway.
When it came to that crazy H-reflex, the tai chi group had much better inhibition of the reflex while standing, 55 percent, as compared to the control group, which only exhibited 24 percent inhibition. Interestingly, when lying down, the two groups were pretty equal, with the tai chi group showing 71 percent inhibition, compared to 74 percent in the control group.
Researchers concluded that tai chi clearly helped to improve postural control, as well as reflex response. The net benefit of this is better stability and balance, which translates to less risk of suffering a devastating fall.
Get on the Tai Chi Bandwagon
Literally translated as “moving life force,” tai chi involves controlled breathing and choreographed movements that combine to resemble a deliberate, flowing dance. The graceful motions, called forms, are performed by slowly shifting your body’s weight from one foot to another while making synchronized arm, body and leg movements.
Because the movements are so slow and deliberate, they can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Ideally, you should practice tai chi for 30 minutes three to five times a week. However, due to the low intensity and relaxing quality of the exercise, it can be done every day.
If you have never tried tai chi before, you may want to start with a trained instructor who can supervise your posture and movements. Once you have learned how to do the forms correctly, you can practice on your own or with a small group.
1 Alexander, B.H. et al. The cost and frequency of hospitalization for fall-related injuries in older adults. Am J Public Health. 1992;82(7):1020-3.
2 Dellinger, A.M. and Stevens, J.A. The injury problem among older adults: mortality, morbidity and costs. J Safety Res. 2006;37(5):519-22.
3 Maciaszek, J. and Osinski, W. The effects of Tai chi on body balance in elderly people — a review of studies from the early 21st century. Am J Chin Med. 2010;38:219-29.
4 Henderson, N.K. et al. The roles of exercise and fall risk reduction in the prevention of osteoporosis. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am. 1998;27(2):369-87.
5 Murphy, L. and Singh, B.B. Effects of 5-Form, Yang Style Tai chi on older females who have or are at risk for developing osteoporosis. Physiother Theory Pract. 2008;24(5):311-20.
6 Guan, H. and Kocega, D.M. Effects of long-term tai chi practice on balance and h-reflex characteristics. Am J Chin Med. 2011;39(2):251-60.
7 Palmieri, R.M. et al. The Hoffmann reflex: Methodologic considerations and applications for use in sports medicine and athletic training research. J Athl Train. 2004 July-Sept.;39(3):266-77.