The practice of Tai Chi is all about balance, coordination and breathing, so it is little surprise that this form of exercise has been promoted as a means of improving balance. The claims made about Tai Chi in this respect have been backed up by scientific research, however, so that Tai Chi has actually been suggested as a means of improving balance in order to reduce the risk of falls in senior citizens.
A systematic review of scientific research into the use of Tai Chi as a balance improvement exercise for senior citizens found that Tai Chi was an effective means of helping people to improve their balance. The majority of the studies that were included in this review featured Yang style Tai Chi practiced for at least 12 weeks with sessions of at least 45 minutes, at least twice a week. (Liu 2010)
A wide range of different studies have examined the effects of Tai Chi on balance improvement in different populations of people, including those who have been affected by balance disorders, senior citizens who are at the greatest risk of incurring injuries from falls, and people recovering from various medical conditions, including strokes and spinal injuries.
The studies have also varied in terms of the types of Tai Chi exercises that have been used and the intensity and duration of the exercise programs.
In a short-term study which involved people taking part in an intensive course of Tai Chi over just six days, it was found that participants were already showing improvements in balance when they finished this course, after practicing Tai Chi for less than a week. The improvements were generally greater when the participants were older. Balance before and after the course of Tai Chi was measured using a device that monitored body sway as participants stood on stable and unstable surfaces, with their eyes open or closed. (Li 2010)
Studies of the longer term effects of Tai Chi on balance have also been conducted. One study compared the balance of two groups of older people. One group was made up of experienced practitioners of Tai Chi, with an average of 13.2 years experience. The other group consisted of people with no Tai Chi experience. This study found that the Tai Chi group showed significantly better results in tests of balance as well as in flexibility and cardiovascular health. Balance was tested through assessments involving standing on one leg with eyes closed. (Hong 2000)
In a similar study of the long-term effects of Tai Chi on balance, a group of elderly Tai Chi practitioners was compared not only with a group of similarly aged people who did not practice Tai Chi, but also with a group of healthy young university students. This study found that the Tai Chi practitioner group had significantly better balance than the same age group of non-practitioners. It also showed that the balance of the senior Tai Chi practitioners was just as good as that of the young student group. Balance in this study was measured by monitoring sway under various conditions which made balancing more difficult, for example, when visual cues for balance were unavailable. (Tsang 2004) It seems that regular, long-term practice of Tai Chi can help people to retain the balancing ability that they have when they are young. Balance usually declines with age, resulting in a higher risk of falls and injuries. Practicing Tai Chi can help to improve balance and keep people safe as they age.
Studies of the effects of Tai Chi on balance have not been limited to senior citizens or to patients in whom the practice of Tai Chi can be used for therapeutic purposes. Researchers have also examined the improvements in balance that have been experienced by young, healthy people. One study examined the improvements in balance and various other factors that was experienced by a group of people aged 20 to 45 when they participated in a 12 week course of Tai Chi. This study required the participants, who had not previously practiced Tai Chi, to take part in three sessions per week over the course of the study. They learned 108 difference forms during this time. Their balancing ability was measured before and after the study, through assessments of their stability. A control group was also assessed at the study’s beginning and end, but these participants did not practice any Tai Chi. After the completion of the study, the Tai Chi group showed a significantly greater improvement in lateral stability over the course of the study than the control group. The Tai Chi group also showed a significantly improved kinesthetic sense (or proprioception, the sense of the relative positioning of different parts of the body that plays a part in balance) when assessed at 60 degrees, although they did not show an improvement at either of the lower angles that were tested. The researchers suggested that this was because the exercises performed during the Tai Chi sessions did not commonly involve these lesser angles. The study showed that Tai Chi can improve stability and balance in young, healthy adults, but it also implied that the forms of Tai Chi that are practiced will have an effect on the benefits that are experienced. A greater range of exercises may help Tai Chi practitioners to improve their balance when performing different types of activities in different situations. (Jacobsen 1997)
The improvements in balance that have been experienced by people taking part in Tai Chi studies has varied a great deal. Some have shown improvements in balance assessments of just 10 percent, while others have demonstrated improvements of 50 percent or more. In one study, a group of senior citizens who were experienced practitioners of the Tai Chi were found to have balance that was as good as that of a group of young adults. (Tsang 2004)
Hong, Y. Li, JX, Robinson, PD. (2000) Balance control, flexibility, and cardiorespiratory fitness among older Tai Chi practitioners Br J Sports Med 34:29-34 Available online at http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/34/1/29.abstract Accessed 21/01/2011
Jacobsen, BH. Chen, HC. Cashel, C. Guerrero, L. (1997) The effect of T’ai Chi Chuan training on balance, kinesthetic sense, and strength. Percept Mot Skills. Feb 84(1)27-33 Available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9132718 Accessed 21/01/2011
Li, H. Waite, GN. Moga, MM. Lam, P. Geib, RW. (2010) Balance improvements after a week-long tai chi workshop as determined by dynamic posturography Biomed Sci Instrum 46:172-7 Available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20467090 Accessed 21/01/2011
Liu, H. Frank, A. (2010) Tai Chi as a Balance Improvement Exercise for Older Adults: A Systematic Review Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy 33(3):103-9 Available online at http://journals.lww.com/jgpt/Abstract/2010/07000/Tai_Chi_as_a_Balance_Improvement_Exercise_for.2.aspx Accessed 21/01/2011
Tsang, WW. Wong, VS. Fu, SN. Hui-Chan, CW. Tai Chi improves standing balance control under reduced or conflicting sensory conditions. Arch Phys Med Rehabil Jan 85(1):129-37 Available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14970980 Accessed 21/01/2011