With little effort, most people can probably recall an incident when they or an older loved one suffered from a serious fall. In a 2008 report released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, 16% of Massachusetts residents 65 years and older reported at least 1 fall in the previous 3 months, which, in 2006, amounted to $471.95 million in hospital costs. Nearly 30% of falls among Massachusetts seniors resulted in physical injuries, not to mention the loss of confidence and independence that can result from a serious fall.
While many retirees may feel as though the deleterious effects of aging are unavoidable, the CDC encourages that many falls among older adults are preventable. While preventing falls is a multi-faceted public health initiative, individuals can begin by staying active with exercises that promote strength and balance.
Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese martial art practiced by both men and women, is recommended by the CDC and the Mayo Clinic as an activity promoting the components of fitness most critical for avoiding falls: balance, flexibility, and lower limb strength. Tai Chi is considered by the Mayo Clinic to be low-impact, making it an appropriate activity for anyone, no matter their age or level of strength.
In a study recently published in the journal Disability and Rehabilitation, 152 older adults were randomly assigned to either perform supervised Tai Chi or traditional physical exercises. Both forms of exercise led to significant improvements in balance, gate and fear of falling, but only the supervised Tai Chi resulted in fewer falls and improved beliefs about physical capabilities. The researchers speculated that Tai Chi, more so than traditional physical exercises, may lead to the confidence needed to avoid falling. Perhaps the mindful nature of Tai Chi makes all the difference.
The Easthampton Council on Aging and Senior Center offers weekly Tai Chi classes on Fridays at 9:00 a.m. Taught by Dr. Earl Lizotte, an optometrist and Tai Chi practitioner himself, the classes are an opportunity to learn some of the most fundamental Tai Chi movements, as well as movements that are more challenging to foster even greater strength, balance, flexibility and joint mobility. “I focus on teaching them the basics,” says Lizotte. “If the moves are simple, people are more likely to do them on their own. If they’re too complicated, people may be less likely to do it.”
Besides the physical health benefits, Tai Chi is also known for its stress-relieving potential, stemming largely from its rhythmic, meditative nature. “Tai Chi is a combination of meditation and movement,” explains Lizotte. Movements are generally slow and flowing; practitioners are encouraged to focus their attention on the movements and their breathing, which can bring about a relaxed mind and body.
Lizotte has been practicing Tai Chi for 3 years, and has been teaching the weekly classes at the Easthampton Senior Center for 1 year. He had “dabbled” in Tai Chi for a while, but began to pursue it more seriously when he suffered a fall that resulted in a shoulder injury. “I could scarcely move my arm,” he explains. “After doing Tai Chi for about 3 months, I had full range of motion restored.”
The class met, as usual, at 9:00 a.m. on March 9 at the Enrichment Center. Five women gathered in a circle close enough to see and hear Dr. Lizotte, but with enough space to move their bodies freely. Soft, oriental-sounding music playing in the background created a peaceful atmosphere, despite the surrounding bustle of a busy senior center.
The class began with a sequence of 18 fundamental Tai Chi movements to awaken the body from head to toe. Following Dr. Lizotte’s lead, the womens’ movements were graceful and flowing; almost like a meditative dance. Lizotte encouraged a brief pause after each movement, explaining that “A pause allows you to focus on your breathing and allows the flow of energy through your body. The pause between movements is just as important as doing the movements.”
Lizotte suggested that class attendees perform these 18 fundamental movements at home each day. “Do these each morning,” he advised. “Carve out 15 minutes each morning for Tai Chi, and you’ll be more efficient throughout the day and make up that time.”
Following the series of fundamental movements, the class transitioned to movements that were even more challenging and demanded a bit more strength, coordination and concentration. The women were up for the challenge though and gave the moves their full effort. They encouraged one another and appeared to enjoy one another’s company and efforts.
Lizotte encouraged the women to perform these more difficult movements at home, along with the basic moves, on a regular basis. “Each of these moves is something you can do during the commercials while you’re watching TV. Or if you’re reading a book, get up every once in a while and do one of these moves for a few minutes.” He believes that this approach may be particularly effective for individuals who find it difficult to get motivated to do Tai Chi on their own outside of the class.
When asked about what attendees enjoy most about the class, Lizotte said, “They feel so good after doing a session. It helps not only to condition your body so you’re able to accomplish more in less time, but it also clears your mind.” Many who attend the classes find that practicing Tai Chi alleviates some of the discomforts of joint disorders, and according to Lizotte, some regular practitioners from his classes have reported no longer needing to take pain medications. Some have even told him about stumbles from which they can now recover their balance; whereas prior to doing Tai Chi, similar stumbles would most likely have resulted in a fall.
Lizotte points out that,” Seeing the results can give you the impetus to do it on your own.” This is important, he explains, because daily practice beyond the class is necessary to experience the full health benefits of Tai Chi.
To conclude, Lizotte takes a few moments at the end of each class to teach the women practical self-defense skills, like how to hold their keys, and how to block an attack while protecting their face. “They really enjoy that,” he says.
Lizotte acknowledges that his class attendees are primarily women; however, he encourages men that they can benefit just as much from Tai Chi. For that matter, Tai Chi isn’t just for people who are 65 years and older. The intensity of Tai Chi can be varied so that anyone, regardless of strength, age or mobility, can reap the benefits of regular practice.
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