A new study, sponsored by a grant from the National Institute on Aging, has found that consistent tai chi practice significantly reduces fear of falling among older adults. Fear of falling is an indicator of the likelihood of falling, according to studies. Fear of falling also leads to gait alteration, deconditioning, less participation in activities and social interaction, and a worse self-perception of health.

Out of 311 male and female subjects enrolled in the study, 217 completed the trial. They ranged in age from 70 to 97 years, and all had experienced one or more falls in the previous year. Subjects were assigned to tai chi practice or a wellness education program.

Tai chi participants practiced the discipline twice a week for 48 weeks. Many progressed from needing assistive devices in order to stand to doing 2 continuous minutes of tai chi without support. The classes, led by two instructors, progressed from 60 to 90 minutes over the 48 weeks. Wellness participants received 1 hour per week of instruction about fall prevention, exercise and balance, diet and nutrition, medication management, and other health-related issues. Instructors provided handouts but did not lead any exercises.

Other studies have shown that tai chi training can improve older adults’ strength, flexibility, balance, blood pressure, cardiorespiratory function, mood and self-esteem, in addition to reducing stress and the risk of falls. Research also shows that older-adult subjects tend to continue to practice tai chi even after studies have concluded. Given all these benefits, the authors of this study have recommended that tai chi practice be included in any program designed to reduce falling and fear of falling in transitionally frail older adults.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society (2005; 53, 1168–78).