When older adults lose muscle tone and their balance starts to deteriorate, a simple mishap like tripping over a rug or losing their footing as they go to the bathroom during the night can turn into a tragedy. Among Americans who break a hip when they are 50 or older—about 300,000 people per year—24% die within 12 months, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Given this statistic, it is hardly surprising that medical professionals are eager to identify ways to improve balance in older people.

One hopeful solution is tai chi.

A small study funded by a grant from Harvard Medical School in Boston and published in Age and Ageing (2006; 35, 388–93) found that regular tai chi practice significantly improved lower-extremity strength, balance and flexibility in elderly women—more so than brisk walking.

Researchers randomly assigned 19 women, approximately 70 years of age, to either a brisk walking program or tai chi. Eight additional women served as the control group. Investigators took pre- and postintervention measures to assess aerobic capacity, heart rate variability, strength, flexibility, balance, psychological status and quality of life. Subjects followed the programs for 12 weeks. Tai chi participants did a 10-movement short-form Yang style of tai chi. Brisk walking exercisers met three times per week in a mall. Control group members continued their normal daily activities but did not start any new exercise programs during the study period.

Fitness levels increased in both exercise groups, but the benefits were greater for tai chi participants. Tai chi proved at least as effective as brisk walking for enhancing aerobic fitness in elderly women. Moreover, tai chi yielded other benefits—including improvements in lower-extremity strength and balance—that brisk walking did not.