Medication in Motion: The benefits of evidence-based Tai Chi for older adults

Sep 17, 2014

By Raymond Santos, Community Relations Director, Ethos

Falls are one of the biggest health risks for older adults. In fact, one in three adults aged 65 and older falls each year. Up to 30 percent of those who fall suffer injuries that make it difficult to move around easily, live independently and increase their chance of early death.

With the risks to the older adult population growing, health care providers and community-based organizations are turning to Tai Chi, a derivative of Chinese martial arts with roots thousands of years old intertwined with traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy, to tackle the problem of falls among older adults.

A more modern adaptation is Tai Chi: Moving for Better Balance, a Centers for Disease Control-approved falls prevention program, which has been adopted by Ethos and other elder services agencies. This program was developed by Fuzhong Li, Ph.D, a researcher based at the Oregon Research Institute.

Dr. Li has been able to adapt the traditional 24-form Yang style Tai Chi training to therapeutic uses by integrating skills needed for activities of daily living like reaching, sitting, standing, and walking. Participants learn eight Tai Chi forms, tailored to older adults who wish to improve balance and mobility and consequently, reduce the risk of falling. Workshops are typically conducted in one-hour sessions, twice weekly, for 12 consecutive weeks in community-based settings.

Tai Chi differs from other types of exercise in several respects. The movements are usually circular and never forced, the muscles are relaxed rather than tensed, the joints are not fully extended or bent, and connective tissues are not stretched. Tai Chi can be easily adapted for anyone, from the fit to people confined to wheelchairs or recovering from surgery.

According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, what is often described as ‘meditation in motion’, Tai Chi might well be called ‘medication in motion.’ There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice, which originated in China as a martial art, has value in treating or preventing many health problems. In a study of 256 seniors, from 70 to 92 years old, participants had a more than 40 percent reduction in the number of falls, according to the Oregon Research Institute.

A 2008 Tufts University study of 40 older adults found that an hour of Tai Chi twice a week for 12 weeks reduced pain and improved mood and physical functioning more than standard stretching exercises in people with severe knee osteoarthritis.

Surveys, including one by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine have shown that between 2.3 million and 3 million people practice Tai Chi regularly in the U.S.

At Ethos we have been teaching evidence-based Tai Chi classes for older adults since 2010, through the support of the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, and we have seen firsthand the difference in our clients’ lives. The story of one class participant in particular resonates with me.

“When I do Tai Chi I feel so much better,” said Steve Bennett a multiple cancer survivor and an Ethos Tai Chi class participant. Steve began Tai Chi classes after a series of falls in and around his home. “Tai Chi teaches you balance and has built up my confidence level, as far as going outside in all types of weather or being afraid of falling.”

Three years later, Steve continues to practice Tai Chi regularly and credits the class with improving his health and reducing the chance of falling.

To learn more about community-based Tai Chi programs for older adults, please visit: