Older Americans are discovering today what ancient Chinese sages have been teaching for thousands of years—that balance in body, mind and spirit contributes to a healthier and happier life.

In a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (2005; 37 [2], 280–89), researchers observed two groups of 24 male and female adults around 70 years of age: one group of long-term tai chi practitioners and one group of healthy older adults who did not practice tai chi. The scientists assessed the subjects’ knee extensor and flexor strength, single-leg balance, and balance confidence during daily activities. The tai chi practitioners had superior results in all categories, confirming that tai chi practice is valuable for improving physical balance.

A larger study, published in the Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences (2005; 60 [1], 34–40), found that tai chi participants had stronger feelings of self-efficacy and less fear of falling than older adults who did not practice tai chi. Researchers at the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, Oregon, studied 256 older adults between the ages of 70 and 92 years. Three times a week for 6 months, about half the subjects practiced tai chi, while the others participated in stretching sessions. The tai chi participants experienced improved self-efficacy and reported less fear of falling than the stretching group.

The type of physical and mental strengthening experienced by tai chi participants is likely to contribute to an overall improvement in quality of life. A study published in Gerontology (2005; 51 [2], 116–21) indicates that dynamic balance ability is an independent predictor of quality of life. If older-adult practitioners of tai chi are stronger, feel more confident and experience less fear than their peers, it’s easy to understand how they would also experience a higher quality of life than those who do not enjoy the same level of conditioning.