How Does Tai Chi Help Balance?

This is a guest post from Dianne Bailey, CSCS, FAS, CTCI.

There are many studies that show a decrease in the fall risk for those that participate in Tai Chi, but there are few discussions about why or how Tai Chi has any effect on improving balance.  As a long time Tai Chi practitioner and instructor, I would like to posit some ideas to explain this phenomenon.

There are some basic underlying principles in Tai Chi and these principles are what really drive the benefits including improved balance.  Here is a list of some of these principles and how applying them to your movement can help reduce the risk of falling.

Columns:  There are 3 columns in your body.  One runs straight down the center of your body and the other 2 run from your shoulder vertically through your hip on both sides. These columns need to keep their integrity by keeping your shoulders above your hips.  Think about a person using a walker.  They are typically bent forward somewhat and have broken their “columns.”  This bent over position is a risk factor for falling. The idea of keeping the “columns” intact not only helps people keep a good posture, but encourages them to keep their eyes on the horizon and not look down all the time.

Moving from the dan tian:  The dan tian is 2 inches in from the belly button and 2 inches down.  It is the center of your energy in Tai Chi and it is also the center of your mass. By thinking about moving from the dan tian, you will keep your columns intact and won’t lead with your shoulders or head as you step forward.

Substantial and insubstantial:  This principle deals with understanding where your weight is at all times during movement.  One leg is substantial and is your base of support.  The other leg is insubstantial so you can move forward, backward or to the side.  As you move, you should be aware of bringing your dan tian to your substantial side.  In other words, you are bringing your center of mass over your base of support which is ideal for balance.

Rooted and grounded: The idea of being rooted and grounded in Tai Chi is one of “fluid stability.”  While you can imagine roots growing deep and wide from your feet, you are not glued to the ground.  It’s more of an awareness through your feet and allowing them to react to the ground.  It’s also the idea of lowering your center of gravity slightly which makes you more stable.

pheasant stands pose

Relaxation:  Believe it or not, being able to relax as you move is important for balance.  When your body is tense, you are less likely to adapt to change and therefore, you are at a greater risk for falling.

If you are interested in learning some Tai Chi on your own, you might be interested in the Daily Series from the Open the Door to Tai Chi system.  One of the videos in this series is specifically geared towards balance.  The Basics of Balance will teach you some movements from the Yang style of Tai Chi and teach you how to apply the underlying principles.  For more information, go to: https://taichisystem.com/daily-series/

As a fitness professional, martial artist, and owner of a successful personal training studio in Denver, Dianne is passionate about creating the best opportunities for the mature adult to enjoy health and fitness. This passion has led her to create a system for learning Tai Chi which will empower fitness professionals to be able to offer this amazing form of exercise to their clientele and help others learn this wonderful form of “movement meditation.” 

Dianne is a CSCS, a Functional Aging Specialist and a Certified Tai Chi Instructor. She has presented the benefits of Tai Chi at the Functional Aging Summit, ICAA Conference and Fitness Fest. In her engaging, easy-going yet commanding style, she hopes to encourage people to include Tai Chi in their offerings.

Focus on This in Summer to Protect Your Balance

delicious fruit flavored water at the beach

Most people associate winter with increased danger for loss of balance and falls. But did you know that summer can be just as dangerous?

The hazards are different, of course. A recent French study showed that dehydration can weaken cognitive function as well as the muscles. This means that recognition of a hazard can be delayed, as well as the reaction time necessary to avoid it.

Many dehydration studies have been carried out on athletes and others under extreme conditions, studying dizziness, loss of function and loss of electrolytes, so the French study is interesting in that it looked at normal women, doing regular tasks, half of whom went 24 hours without water or other drinks, whilst the control group were kept hydrated.

The group suffering from dehydration experienced higher heart rate (though not in the clinically significant range), sleepiness, confusion and decreased alertness.

The human balance system relies on good input from the senses (the soles of the feet, the vestibular system – where the limbs are in space – inner ear, eyes) and strong communication between the brain and muscles to react to that stimuli, in order to keep the body balanced and moving around safely.

In parts of the world where summer is particularly hot, dehydation can occur surprisingly quickly. One of the side effects of aging is that it is harder to sense when you are dehydrated, which means that often older adults suffer from mild to moderate dehydration without even being aware of it.

In the real world, this can have significant consequences as in summer people often travel to new locations, where their balance is put under further pressure. See this article published in The Traveling Boomer blog for some of the other ways that travel can impact balance and fall risk.

So buy up that watermelon, or whip up your favorite mocktail if you’re bored of just plain water. Make staying hydrated fun, whether you’re going to the gym, hanging out with friends, or absorbing a new culture.

How to Bounce Back from Sickness

We can’t control everything: sometimes life throws us curve balls. The question is, can you get back up after a serious illness, even later in life?

Karen is an active and positive art teacher to adults. One day, she suffered an allergic reaction which made her very ill, culminated double pneumonia and triggered Atrial Fibrillation.

After recovering from the pneumonia, she still had the AFib to deal with. Many doctors told her that, at her age (74), she should count her blessings, rather than expect to change anything.

But Karen had been pretty active all through her life. Not run-all-the-races athletic, but she’d always enjoyed walking and dancing; things now made difficult with AFib. She began to feel depressed, unable to take walks in her local area that had previously been part of her life: seeing the changing seasons in the hedgerows: new buds, new birds, deer and rabbits, leaves falling in autumn. All of it suddenly denied to her.

senior woman doing tai chi

Unsure of exactly what to do, she decided to take up again a practise she and her husband had experimented with a few years before: Tai Chi.  Their master had left the area, but she still remembered the moves. Now Karen started to do them by herself. First thing every morning, she did a simple 15 minute sequence.

“It made me feel connected to my surroundings and ready to meet the day”

She liked the breathing, the concentration of fitting the moves together. The gentle movement from one form to another.

Karen was also a participant in a Zibrio study on balance. We measured her twice, and tracked her health changes for a year. She was blinded to her score (so it couldn’t affect her choices).

We first measured her about 12 months after the pneumonia. Then again 9 months later, after she’d taken up the Tai Chi practise again. At the time of her first testing, she scored 4/10, just above the high risk for falling. After her regular Tai Chi practise, her score rose to 8/10.

Many things affect balance, so it was interesting that the only thing Karen reported had changed in that time had been her daily commitment to the Tai Chi sequence.

The good news, as Karen, and others in our Personal Stories series discovered, is that just as balance can get worse, it can also get better at any time of life, depending on what we do. It’s the ultimate example of ‘use it or lose it‘.

We are interested in partnering with a robust trial using Tai Chi as an intervention for fall risk to be able to quantify the benefits. In the meantime, these studies demonstrate the positive effect of Tai Chi on lowering fall risk, and improving the management of a number of medical conditions.

If you want to learn more about Tai Chi in your area, the American Tai Chi Association has details, and also ask at your local community center or gym as they frequently offer classes. Bear in mind that exercises to improve balance are best done standing, not seated.

Note: This story is just one person, and the Tai Chi part wasn’t part of a controlled intervention, so we can’t draw any scientific conclusions from Karen’s experience. We share it with you as part of our personal stories series, intended to inspire people and show that balance can improve at any stage and any age. Always speak to your doctor before starting new exercise, and seek the help of a qualified professional.

How To Start an Exercise Program At Any Age

By Althea Cameron

The benefits of exercise are well documented, and studies show that it is never too late to start exercising. The Centers for Disease Control Prevention points out that older adults can benefit greatly from even moderate amounts of physical activity. One benefit is reducing the risk of debilitating conditions such as developing high blood pressure, colon cancer, and diabetes. Here are four points that you should consider if you are thinking about starting an exercise program after a period of inactivity.

Consult your doctor

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

This step is extremely important, especially if you have been sedentary for a period of time. Your doctor will advise you on how much physical activity your body can handle and explain how you should move forward. Your doctor will also give you pointers on recovery, which will come in handy during your first few sessions.

Think of what you love doing . . . and do it

Exercise doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym. A walk around the neighborhood can be just as effective as time spent on a cardio machine if it means you stick to it regularly. Combining physical activity with a passion or hobby you have always wanted to do is a great way to start an exercise program and can also be a way of making new friends. If others rely on your joining them on a bike ride every week, you are less likely to give it up. 

If you used to be fit there is no reason why you can’t return to good form as you get older. Just as with those new to exercise, it’s important to start slow and gradually build up your strength and stamina. It can be worthwhile to hire a coach for a few sessions to help ease you back into your sport and advise you on additional routines to stay injury free.

Start a new sport

photo credit: pexels

It is never too late to start a new sport, and there are many health and social benefits that come with a new physical activity. Swimming is an excellent choice, as it is low impact, which can be better for joints.  An inspiration in this regard is Maurine Kornfield, who at 97 is the oldest active member of the 64,000-strong U.S. Masters Swimming. What’s more, she started swimming just before her 60th birthday and has since then set 16 world records for her age group. 

Also highly recommended is tennis. Melissa Neiman’s article on ‘5 Great Sports to Take Up After the Age 50’ notes that the benefits of playing tennis include “higher aerobic capacities, lower resting heart rate, and blood pressure responses, improved metabolic function, improved skeletal integrity, improved reaction time, and decreased stress reactivity.” 

Tennis, while largely high impact, is noted by Harvard Health to be a sport for life. It can be played even in your later years because it can be customized and slowed down (much like walking soccer) to suit your age and fitness level. You can, for instance, walk instead of sprint, volley rather than smash, or let a ball sail by rather than dive for it. These adjustments lower the impact in a way that even older adults can continue playing. This is the reason that former tennis pros like John McEnroe and Pete Sampras can still play, even after leaving the ATP Tour. While still having the ability to run around the court, McEnroe and Sampras have definitely had to adjust their games since. 

Recently, Sampras (47) played in an impromptu doubles exhibition at Indian Wells with Novak Djokovic as his teammate and fellow former professionals Tommy Haas (41) and John McEnroe (60) as their opponents. Sampras is one of the highest earning tennis stars of all-time due to his record-breaking Grand Slam haul, and he has continued to play exhibition matches well into his 40s. The fact that Sampras (and Haas and McEnroe for that matter) continue to play is proof that tennis isn’t just for people in their prime. There are even tennis clubs that focus on this demographic, and joining one is a great way to get involved in the sport. Not to mention, by doing this it will expand your social network, leading to opportunities to further improve your game as you develop.

Give structured exercise a chance

photo from pexels.com

You’ll need to step out from your comfort zone from time to time, especially if you don’t feel up to playing sport. Structured exercise programs such as yoga or Tai Chi can improve flexibility, enhance balance, and increase strength. A study focusing on how a ‘Structured Exercise Program Improves Mobility in All Older Adults’ underscores the importance of this type of approach, with the main takeaway being: Older adults who partake in “long-term, structured, moderate-intensity physical activity programs” have lower risks of mobility disability and frailty. It is also a good way to meet people who are also starting an exercise program.

Althea Cameron is a health and fitness writer, based in the UK. She is passionate about health, and the intersection with technology.

What to Do When You’re Not Ready to Quit Your Sport

Senior Games is speeding around the corners of the course at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds July 8, 2015 (©Jessica Gallagher 2015)

You played sport before: in school, in college, in your early career, and maybe even through the tricky years of parenting young kids, when there’s never enough time for everyone’s activities. Often other responsibilities take over, and exercise falls by the wayside for a while.

Maybe your game was softball, or basketball, tennis or golf. Maybe you ran or cycled: alone or with a group, competitively or just for the fun of participation.

The truth is that, especially if you’re a competitive athlete, it becomes harder to find your tribe as you reach middle age and beyond. Once the kids are older and you have more free time, the opportunities for you don’t seem to be there anymore.

Except, actually, they are.

photo courtesy National Senior Games Association

It is still possible to compete at a national level against your peers in many sports – from traditional track and field, to cycling, tennis, swimming, as well as golf, volleyball, and basketball, to name a few.

The National Senior Games was started over 30 years ago to provide meaningful competition for athletes all over the US who otherwise may have aged out of the mainstream competitions. Or for those wanting to start a sport later in life. Its founders are passionate about helping adults enjoy the health benefits from being active and participating in sport.

This week, nearly 14,000 athletes will convene at the Games, presented by Humana, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. All of them competed and qualified at State level last year to earn their place. From the youngest (50 year-olds) to the oldest (Julia Hawkins, at 103), they will take over the city for 10 days of competition, celebration, and cementing friendships.

Courtesy National Senior Games Association

Some athletes have been returning to the games each year since they started. For others, it’s been a way of reinventing themselves and improving their fitness as they get older.

They all speak of the great friendships they have made through sport, the travel opportunities (The Games is held every two years, each time in a new location. In 2021 it will be in Ft Lauderdale, Florida), and the excitement that comes from competing at a national level against like-minded people. They have found their tribe.

Zibrio is sponsoring the SAFE Zone in the Convention Center this year, where athletes and spectators can come and measure their balance, learn how to improve it, and enter for the chance to win a Zibrio SmartScale for their own home.

3 Simple Ways to Improve Balance

With the change of seasons, we often change our activities, and that’s when we can become aware that we don’t feel as steady or as strong as we’d like.

Maybe you’re getting back to the tennis court after the winter, or exercising outside rather than in the gym. Or maybe you’re just in need of a change. But is your balance good enough, or does it also need some attention?

If you haven’t been challenging it recently, the chances are your balance isn’t as strong as it was. The good news is that by adding balance exercises today, your body will soon respond, and your balance will improve. As with any exercise program, take advice from a professional fitness instructor or physical therapist and start easy. Don’t put yourself at risk of injury.

  • Stand up: In order to challenge your balance, you need to be using it. While many exercises that include sitting or lying can deliver health benefits, they won’t help your balance specifically. Make sure you include movements where you are standing or moving on your feet.
  • Use your legs: The muscles at the front and back of the legs, and the butt, are the most important muscles when it comes to your balance. And most of us don’t challenge them enough. Squats and lunges are important to do properly in order to protect your knees and back. If you’re not sure, get advice from someone who can watch your form and make sure you’re doing them correctly. You can also do this sit-stand exercise from the CDC.
  • Do it every day: You don’t have to throw heavy weights around, but incorporating a few balance exercises into your daily life will help it improve faster. If you can stand on one leg, try doing it while brushing your teeth, for example. Once a balance exercise become easy, it’s time to think about increasing the level of challenge, there are a number of tools available to help you do this.

Like what you read here? You can sign up to our newsletter for more tips and information, as well as special offers on Zibrio SmartScales and other balance products.

Free Balance Screenings

If you’re in Houston over the next week, come and talk to us, we’ll be out in the community. Get a free balance screening, find out how your habits impact your balance and enter to win a free personal balance consultation with Dr Katharine Forth, our human motor control expert.

Thursday April 11, 8-10am & Wednesday April 17, 9-11

Senior Services Center, 6104 Auden, West University Place, Houston, 77005

My Lucky Escape

good balance means you can live your life

Judy, a sprightly grandmother who prides herself on fully participating in her community, was unhappy when we called to see her.

We were visiting her upmarket independent living apartment in order to understand the typical fluctuations in balance over time for people going about their daily lives.

Judy was subdued: she had fallen, and although she hadn’t broken anything, she was scared of it happening again.

I feel I had a lucky escape this time,” she said.

Judy and a number of her friends had signed up to be part of our balance study where they would measure their balance as often as they liked, reporting on their daily health habits and any falls they experienced.

Since starting the study a month earlier, Judy had been scoring 3/10, which meant in the danger zone for falling. That day, Judy scored just 2/10. She was afraid her life was about to change, that she would have to give up her full social life and travel plans. “Aging’s not for sissies,” she said. “But it’s better than the alternative.”

Judy found that, after the first weeks of physical therapy, she began to feel stronger and was enjoying exercise classes at the apartments, as well as using the equipment at a nearby gym. Within 2 months she was scoring 5/10 (in the moderate zone).

“I can’t believe it!” she told us excitedly when we visited.

“I got a 5!” she called out to one of her friends.

When her physical therapy ended, she enrolled in a balance exercise class, and for the rest of the year, her balance scores were in the moderate zone. She visited family at the other end of the country, enjoying the freedom she felt.

When the Holidays came round and the exercise classes took a break, Judy turned her energies to organising social events with friends. She was alarmed to see her balance score drop to 3/10 again.

“I knew I had to keep myself moving,” she said. “I really notice it now if I take a couple of weeks off.

how measuring balance can prevent a fall

The following year, Judy was delighted to get into the green zone for balance. “I feel pretty good about getting 7/10 at my age,” she said. “Even though it isn’t high every time, it’s like a little challenge to myself to see how close I can get.”

“Measuring my balance has really opened my eyes as to how much my balance changes and how the little things I do every day have such a big impact.”

Should I Care if I Wobble?

should I care

What can measuring your balance do for you? You might already track your steps or heart rate. What is the benefit in adding something else?

Ellen is a long time runner, and personal trainer, who became interested in measuring balance. This is her story.

“At first, I was really disappointed to score only 4/10. Even though I know only elite athletes sometimes score 10/10, I secretly hoped I might at least be close. Especially since I train other people and feel like I know how to get the best out of my body, I expected to score high.

Then I thought about it, and realized, I spend so much time helping others achieve their goals, I was neglecting my own needs. It had been a while since my last event, so I wasn’t training to a goal. When I demonstrate an exercise, it’s just that – a demo, I’m not doing it as a work out for myself. I realized I needed to do more for me.

The first thing I put back into my personal routine were lunges. They’re an exercise many people avoid as they’re uncomfortable, but that’s where their power lies. You’re offset, your ‘strong’ side can’t compensate for the weaker side, and you have to concentrate. You can’t do it without concentrating, and that’s exactly why it helps. If you haven’t done them before, get some help to check your form: your hips should be level and square, and your front knee mustn’t go forward of your toes.

lunges for balance

Over the next week, my balance score fluctuated between 5 and 7. Finally, I reached the green zone, and I knew I was doing the right things for me. But I still wasn’t scoring as high as I thought I should be.

I scheduled an overdue appointment with my chiropractor, who warned me not to expect sudden change after my treatment. Sure enough, that day, my score dipped to 6, but the next day and the days since then, I’ve been scoring 8’s.

I’ve started to see balance as a check that I’m doing the right things, not just in terms of exercise, but also with my overall health. It reminds me of when I trained with a running specialist. There’s always a piece you can gain by seeking out the experts. My body can tell me how I really am through my balance.  I just have to listen to it.

Now that you understand what affects your balance, buy a Zibrio SmartScale and start tracking your balance today.

Shhhh. Big News Coming Soon

You’re going to love this. We’ve talked and researched and planned and tested. Then refined and tested and modified and improved. We’re so excited to share with you the next stage, the one that will matter most to you.

And the wait is nearly over!

zibrio at sxsw

Come and see us at SXSW in Austin, Tx this weekend. We’d love to meet you, have you test out our balance scale. Follow us on Facebook to find out where we are and what we’re up to.

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