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I first began learning tai chi 20 years ago because I was interested in the martial arts and the amazing feats martial artists could perform. Through the years, the benefits of this Chinese form of meditative exercise continue to reveal themselves and amaze me.
My knees are healthier, my back hurts less and my ankles are stronger now than when I began practicing. I have aged in that time, but things have improved. As far as the mental benefits, I would not have been able to make it through my graduate acupuncture program without this ability to center myself.
Tai chi strengthens the body while focusing the mind. It provides a range of physical and mental health benefits, including bone strength, joint stability, cardiovascular health, immunity and emotional well-being. A recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine found the program particularly effective for balance in people with Parkinson’s disease.
Tai chi is especially useful for improving balance and preventing falls — a major concern for older adults. Participants also report having more confidence in their balance once they start tai chi. Simply having a fear of falling has been found to be a major predictor of fall risk.
In 2004, the Oregon Research Institute conducted a six-month study on tai chi. Physically inactive community members between the ages of 70 and 92 were selected. Participants who practiced tai chi were less likely to fall, and those who did fall had fewer injurious falls when compared to a control group of people who only did stretching exercises.
Tai chi improves balance by targeting all the physiological components needed to stay upright: leg strength, flexibility, range of motion and reflexes. All of these components tend to decline with age.
With the weather we have been having this winter, every bit helps when it comes to reducing our risk of falling. And that may be the most amazing feat of all.