Tai Chi, Balance and Longevity

shapiro_illorevTai Chi gained legitimacy in the medical community when it was shown to be an effective means of fall prevention in the elderly. Falls often result in permanent disability and shortened life spans. Tai Chi proved to be an effective, low cost method of improving balance.

Fong Ha, a respected Tai Chi/Yiquan practitioner, gave me additional insights concerning balance and longevity at one of his recent workshops. He mentioned that the Chinese believe that good balance is a major factor in promoting longevity. Sifu Fong was not emphasizing fall prevention.

The characteristic gait and posture of many senior citizens can give important lessons about balance and the body’s mechanism of maintaining equilibrium. Two distinct “abnormalities” are present; a hunched (kyphotic) trunk, and a stiff, shuffling stride. These abnormalities are, in fact, adaptations to insure safety.

We are genetically programmed for survival. A good example of this is the fractured wrist that often occurs as the result of a fall. The arms automatically thrust outward as balance is lost, in order to prevent serious bodily injury, especially to the skull. This reaction does not require conscious thought, it is totally involuntary.

The elderly, “abnormal” gait is most often the response to impaired balance. The hunched over trunk aids in keeping the gaze on the ground and feet. The eyes have to assume a greater role in orientation because of an increasing impaired internal (proprioceptive) sense of balance. The same mechanism occurs in younger individuals when descending stairs. The gaze automatically shifts downward to keep the feet and steps in sight, especially if there is no hand rail.

shapiro_illoThe stiff, shuffling stride minimizes time spent on one leg while the other leg is airborne (swing through). A longer stride presents greater instability. The balance impaired individual needs to spend as much time as possible with both feet on the ground.

It is important to reemphasize that these adaptations occur without conscious planning. They develop in response to a perceived internal threat to safety. There is a price to pay, however. This gait pattern requires greater energy expenditure. Walking becomes burdensome. Effortlessness is replaced by constraint. Movement becomes redesigned to keep a tight rein on the center of gravity.

This change in mobility often causes a more sedentary life style, with an inevitable downward functional spiral. Mental acuity can suffer. Fear of movement is a powerful deterrent to curiosity and inquisitiveness, thereby limiting the desire for social interaction. Studies of healthy, aged individuals have shown that it is these traits that are largely responsible for their longevity.

Tai Chi is about balance. Yang Cheng Fu’s exhortations to maintain an erect spine and to keep the head suspended serve to keep the practitioner’s gaze off the ground, thereby heightening the proprioceptive sense of balance. Tai Chi’s signature, slow movement, sharpens and challenges balance by prolonging the transition time from single to double weighted postures. The effortless power that skillful players display stems from superior balance.

Perhaps it would make better sense to adopt a health regimen that incorporated Tai Chi, rather than undertaking the Western “no pain: no gain” approach which is often more concerned with appearance rather than function. The latter may provide more immediate short term benefits, but is often injurious and impractical to maintain over a prolonged period. Tai Chi, with its decided emphasis on balance is ideally designed for the long run.

Gary Shapiro, married with two children,  is a former USAF navigator. He has been practicing Tai Chi for as long as he’s been a physical therapist- about 25 yrs- and is interested in applying the practical aspects of Tai Chi to benefit those he works with.

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