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.

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.

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.

Sleep Has Major Impact on Balance: New Study Shows

A team of researchers from the University of Warwick, in the UK, has  published research showing that poor quality sleep reduces a person’s ability to balance the next day.

The research was conducted on healthy adults with no history of sleep problems, and ranging in age from 24-34. They were monitored over two days in their own homes using latests sensors to measure their quality of sleep. Their balance was measured in a gait lab, and other information was gathered in the form of sleep diaries and questionnaires.

The researchers say the results are very clear:

Subjects with a day-to-day deterioration in sleep quantity and quality … exhibited significant changes in balance. Conversely, subjects with no significant alterations in sleep quantity and quality showed no significant changes in [balance measurements].

The study has some limitations as there were only 20 participants, and did not include a very wide age range, but the team hypothesize that if young, healthy adults suffer poorer balance after sleep disruption, then the effect on older adults is likely to be even greater.

When tired, the study participants showed significantly worse balance when tested with eyes closed vs eyes open, compared to those who had rested well, meaning that we rely on vision even more when fatigued, and vision is typically worse in older adults than in younger people, exacerbating the effect on stability and balance.

This research demonstrates something many people can identify with – a feeling of wobbliness after a wakeful or disturbed night. Being tired really does put you at greater risk of falling, because your ability to balance, and react to outside events, is lower when tired.

How to Sleep Better

Daily habits have an effect on our sleep, and experts recommend keeping a sleep diary for a couple of weeks to help work out where improvements can be made.

Improvement advice falls into 3 areas:

  • What you put into your body
  • Your sleep environment
  • Your mental state

It’s best to avoid heavy meals, alcohol or caffeine before bed, and also to reduce any liquid consumption in the evening, to avoid late night bathroom visits.

Keep work and other electronic devices away from your bedroom, make it a peaceful, cool environment that you use only for sleeping and intimacy.

Set an alarm to help you get 7 hours of sleep, and try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Make sleep a priority, but don’t get anxious about it. If you can’t sleep after 20 minutes, get up and read a book. Allow yourself to simply rest. Practise mindfulness or meditative breathing.

Making sure that you get some exercise every day is another way of improving your quality of sleep.

Click here to read the original research, published in Nature

 

Holiday Balance Tips

have your cake and eat it

The holidays should be a time for celebration with family and friends, but often, in the endless round of preparation, shopping and parties, one of the first things to be sacrificed are the habits that keep us healthy.

But you don’t have to sacrifice your balance – or your health, if you keep in mind some simple tricks:

  1. Small actions help. Give yourself 5-10 minutes in the morning to do some light exercise: yoga stretches, Tai Chi sequences, anything that fires the connection between brain and muscles. If you don’t have time in the morning, fit it in later in the day.
  2. Use the dead time. When brushing your teeth, or waiting in line at the store, practise standing on one leg, the other raised just off the floor. Make sure there is something sturdy nearby to keep you safe should you need it.
  3. Keep moving. You don’t even need your workout clothes. Take every opportunity to get up and move around, or choose to stand instead of sit, and walk instead of drive wherever possible.
  4. Drink water. Dehydration adds to fatigue, which is bad for balance. We don’t feel as thirsty in the colder weather, so make a point of drinking water often. Added bonus: nutritionists recommend starting every party with a glass of water to cut down on the empty calories.
  5. Protect your sleep. Set an alarm if necessary, and get to bed in time to get a full night’s rest. But don’t beat yourself up if you can’t avoid some late nights. Enjoy them! and try to give yourself some extra rest the following day. Even a 5-10 minute period of meditation or mindfulness can help soothe a tired nervous system and combat holiday stress.

For further information on the many influences on your balance and how to help them, check out our:

Free ebook

 

Wishing you a better balanced holiday season this year.

Signs Your Balance Needs Attention

what you give up without balance

At a health fair recently, we asked people to complete the following sentence:

If I had good balance, I’d be able to …

Stop there a moment. What would you like to do, or learn to do, if you were confident in your balance?

Some answers were not so surprising. Travel came up a lot. Some people talked about fears of walking outside on wet, leafy or icy sidewalks. Others wanted to visit friends at the other end of the country or go hiking in a National Park.

A woman in her 70’s told a story of visiting family who were extending their house, adding a floor. She happily walked up the rough steps to take a look and only noticed the lack of handrail (or anything sturdy) when she turned to come back down again.

“Until you push yourself into doing something different, you don’t know you have a problem”

A man in his late 60’s was more concerned with everyday inconveniences:

“Be able to put on my pants standing up”

Which got us thinking. When we’re comfortable in our routines, we don’t push the limits. It’s easy to put it off till tomorrow (and the day after). Until walking unsupported down stairs feels dangerous, and then even simpler, everyday things like dressing, have to be modified.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. There are some simple balance specific exercises to help with overall balance – click here to read them. And when it comes to quad strength (the muscles at the front of the thigh), the Center for Disease Control recommends the following exercise, which has a positive effect on balance:

Chair Sit to Stand

  1. Start sitting on a dining room chair (or similar firm chair)
  2. Place your feet flat on the floor
  3. Stand without using your arms to push up
  4. If you need to use your arms, try to use them as little as possible, and work towards not using them at all
  5. Take a moment to breathe and steady yourself while standing
  6. Sit back down slowly (don’t flop into the chair, control your movement)
  7. Repeat 10-15 times
  8. If you can’t do 10 to start with, do as many as you can and then rest. Try to do one more the next day

If you suffer from dizziness or light headedness when standing, this is not a recommended exercise. As with all exercise, you should speak with your doctor first before exerting yourself, and use common sense about what is safe for you to accomplish.

Think about your routine. What do you not do anymore that you’d like to? What steps can you put in place to make it possible again? It’s interesting how often better balance can be the key to the problem.

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Why Fall Prevention?

Fall Prevention

What’s the big deal about falling? Everyone falls from time to time, right? But how many people do you know who’ve fallen, had to move into care, and even died as a result? Every 13 seconds an adult over 65 is admitted to the ER after injuring themselves in a fall.

The costs of a bad fall are not just in medical expenses. It’s the loss of independence, which often leads to isolation and depression, that worries many older adults. As a result, some become cautious and give up doing what they love, hoping to stay safe.

Unfortunately, this has the opposite effect.

The single most important way of preventing a fall is to keep active.

A key difference between a stumble and full-on fall is how fast your brain and muscles can react to catch you. That only comes with continued use, and even, with specialised balance training.

Those who take up an exercise class and stick with it report a host of additional benefits: making friends, feeling more energetic and interested in life, happiness at still being able to line dance, or travel at age 89 and beyond.

There are many resources out there to help manage all kinds of balance problems. Your doctor and pharmacist are a good place to start to check your medications. Physical therapy and Tai Chi are especially well documented for improving balance.

We’re living longer, let’s make sure we enjoy those extra years.

Tell me more about balance

 

There is more information from the Center for Disease Control on the cost of falls, and some sensible steps everyone can take to avoid them.

September 22 is  Falls Prevention Awareness Day, the 10th anniversary of the initiative set up by the National Council on Aging. #FPAD18

Title image courtesy of National Senior Games Association