Both Tai Chi and Seated Exercise Classes Can Help Lower Older Adults’ Risks of Dangerous Falls
Tai chi, a martial art that combines gentle movements, breathing techniques, and stretching, can help prevent falls among older adults. So, too, can an exercise program that includes stretching, strength, and aerobic (“heart healthy”) exercises that are done mostly while sitting, a new study finds. This is good news because older adults run an increased risk of falling, and falls can cause serious and life-threatening injuries in later life. Finding ways to help older people avoid falls is very important.
New Research in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society
Worldwide, a growing number of older adults are practicing tai chi to lower their risks of falling. But just how effective tai chi is in preventing falls in older people isn’t clear. Some studies have found that it’s effective. But other research has concluded that there isn’t enough evidence of this.
The new study was designed to find out two things:
- Whether a five-month long tai chi program would lower older adults’ risks of falls more than a five-month long class that included stretching, strength, and aerobic exercises that were done mostly while sitting.
- Whether older adults doing tai chi twice a week would develop greater muscle strength, and both better mobility and balance – which can lower risks of falls -- than those doing tai chi just once a week.
The new study included more than 680 adults with an average age of 74. All of the adults lived in the community rather than in a nursing home or an assisted living facility. And all had one or more “risk factors” for falls, such as muscle weakness, balance problems, or poor mobility.
The researchers conducting the study randomly assigned a third of the adults to a group that took the hour-long seated exercise class once a week for five months. They assigned another third to a group that took the one-hour tai chi class once a week for five months. And they assigned the remaining third to a group that took the tai chi class twice weekly.
Over the five months, and over an additional 12-month “follow-up” period, the researchers measured each adult’s leg strength, mobility, and balance. They also kept track of how many and how often the adults in each of the groups fell.
The researchers found that all three interventions -- the seated exercise program, tai chi once weekly, and tai chi twice a week -- lowered the adults’ risks of falling by 58 percent over the entire 17 months of the study—both during the five months of exercise classes and during the 12 months that followed. Over those months, the older adults’ muscle strength and balance improved to a similar degree in all three groups but mobility did not improve in any of the groups.
Why did the adults’ risks of falling continue to drop even after the five- month long exercise and tai chi classes ended? It’s likely, the researchers write, that this happened because 65% of the adults in the study joined new exercise programs and continued to exercise after the tai chi and seated exercise classes ended. It’s possible that the tai chi and seated exercise programs encouraged the adults to continue to take exercise classes, the researchers write.
“Providing targeted, exercise-based interventions, even relatively low-level programs, can be beneficial in reducing falls in community-dwelling populations who are at risk of falling,” the researchers conclude. “This study supports the growing body of (research) that demonstrates that group exercise is an effective method of reducing falls in community-dwelling older adults.”
The researchers who conducted the study are based at AUT University and the University of Otago in New Zealand and Emory University and the Veterans Affairs Rehabilitation Research and Development Center in Atlanta Georgia.
What Should I Do?
For easy to understand, expert information -- from the American Geriatrics Society’s (AGS’) Foundation for Health in Aging (AGS) -- about how older adults can lower their risks of falls, visit the following topics:
This study is from the full report titled, “Effectiveness of Tai Chi as a community Based Falls Prevention Intervention: A Randomized controlled Trial.” It is in the May 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The report is authored by Denise Taylor, PhD, Leigh Hale, PhD, Philip Schluter, PhD, Debra L. Waters, PhD, Elizabeth E. Binns, MHSc, Hamish McCracken, MPH, Kathryn McPherson, PhD, and Steven Wolf, PhD.