Tai chi can improve your balance and strength

photo by: Contributed

Students practice tai chi in Adrineh Mehdikhani’s intermediate class.

One fall can be all it takes for some older people to jettison physical activity altogether and be sedentary for the rest of their lives. But physical therapist Adrineh Mehdikhani says there’s a simple way for seniors to improve their balance, build strength and get moving regularly: tai chi.

Tai chi is a noncompetitive fitness activity which features a structured order of postures and stretches that are synchronized with the breath. Mehdikhani describes it as “a series of postures or movements in a slow, graceful manner.”

“The CDC has approved it as one of the primary exercises to reduce fall risk,” she said. “It’s coordinated with the breath and is known as ‘meditation in motion.'”

Each year, a third of adults 65 and older fall, and one in five of those falls results in serious injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whether it causes injury or not, a fall can erode a person’s confidence and hobble their lifestyle in detrimental ways, Mehdikhani says.

“Some of the elderly — when they fall, they’re so fearful of falling again that they don’t move,” Mehdikhani says. “Once they stop moving, they get weaker, which increases their chances of falling again. It’s a vicious cycle that they go through.”

Practicing tai chi is ideal for solving this problem, because the activity specifically targets fall prevention. It also helps with pain reduction, and studies show that consistently practicing tai chi can improve your flexibility and strength.

Mehdikhani has been teaching tai chi through LMH Health at Sports Pavilion Lawrence for about eight years. In that time, she has witnessed and documented many improvements to her students’ health.

“Tai chi has a bunch of benefits,” Mehdikhani says. “Balance enhancement, pain reduction, functional endurance, fall risk reduction. It also strengthens the muscles and enhances balance overall, but you have to do it regularly to see the difference. Studies show that after 12 weeks, you can see it.

“The main purpose of my class is to improve (students’) functional mobility, reduce their risk of falling and build students’ confidence with walking again,” she said.

While falling can reduce a person’s mobility and confidence, sometimes people fall because they’re too confident in what their bodies can do. Stacia Bone, a physical therapist who specializes in vestibular rehabilitation, says that people can sometimes fall because they lack awareness and acceptance of their body’s new limitations. They might try to rush down the stairs or take too big of a step and then tumble over.

“Just being aware is the main thing. Sometimes people don’t realize they can’t go as fast as they’re used to, or that they can’t carry two things up the stairs at a time,” Bone says. “Always having a hand on the rail is good practice.”

Bone also advises people to carry adaptive equipment like canes, walking sticks and hiking poles if necessary.

“People say ‘it makes me look older,'” Bone says. “I say not being able to walk makes you look older.'”

Many of Mehdikhani’s tai chi students use adaptive equipment to aid in walking. And at the beginning of each semester, about 80% of students use chairs to maintain their balance while doing the movements. However, by the eighth week of class, most students are balancing on their own without using chairs for support.

Mehdikhani’s students have told her that the tai chi classes improved their strength, stability and balance. Studies on patient outcomes suggest that people who attend tai chi classes at least twice weekly for twelve weeks are significantly less likely to fall, and if they do fall, they are more likely to recover quickly.

“I had a student say after that taking tai chi, she could dance with her partner again without losing her balance. People have said they are steadier and more confident on their feet. All those little gains were really important to them,” Mehdikhani says. “You can do tai chi standing; you can do it sitting. You can do it at any age. And it is not a competition. You’re not here to be intimidated; you’re here to compete with yourself and improve your own balance. ”

For more information on tai chi classes through LMH Health, call 785-505-5840 or go to lmh.org.

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