I recently gave an online workshop on balance for the Tai Chi Foundation’s students and teachers. I was inspired to do this by one of my students who reported, after doing an exercise from our Eight Ways course called Walking on Thin Ice, that she had thought she had good balance, but this wasn’t true anymore. She was probably in her 50s. This led me to a little research, and I discovered that balance tends to be reasonably well-preserved until a person is in their 50s and then it starts to wane rapidly. Rapidly!
The ability to balance on one leg for 10-20 seconds is a good indicator of health, according to an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Try it out with a chair nearby. Can you stand on one leg for 10-20 seconds? The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has a great deal of information on balance and falls and informs us that falls are the leading cause of injury-related death among adults aged 65 and older.
Brad Manor, PhD of Harvard Medical School, wrote, "Balance is a complex system, and especially as we get older, cognition becomes a big part of it.” Manor continued that good balance requires:
- Correct sensory information from your eyes (visual system), muscles, tendons, and joints (proprioceptive input), and the balance organs in the inner ear (vestibular system).
- The brain stem making sense of all this sensory information in combination with other parts of the brain.
- Movement of your eyes to keep objects in your vision stable and keep your balance (motor output).
Difficulty balancing can be the result of dysfunction from: neuropathy in the legs and feet, brain damage from strokes, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, poor posture, medications, weak legs, ear and eye dysfunction, and more.
To maintain and improve balance requires focus and practice. It also requires strong muscles, especially if you lose your balance and need to regain it.
According to an article in Harvard Health Publishing created by faculty at Harvard Medical School, activities which help improve one’s balance include: walking, biking, and climbing stairs to strengthen muscles in your lower body; stretching to loosen tight muscles to help your posture; doing tai chi which involves gradual shifts of weight from one foot to the other combined with rotating the trunk and extending the limbs.
Tai chi works with intrinsic principles of movement so we can improve our balance by working with these principles.
- We all have a center of movement located three finger-widths below our belly button and one third of the way within our body. This is called the dantian. When we practice focusing in the dantian and moving from this area, we enhance our awareness of our movement and balance.
- Good posture greatly affects our balance. When we move with an upright spine, we are more aligned with gravity. We can imagine that we are hanging by a thread from the heavens above as we walk or do tai chi.
- Awareness of our feet being relaxed and spread out is also helpful. In tai chi we wear loose flat shoes to give the feet maximum room. But if there are issues with the feet, wear what works for you.
- Perhaps the most important tai chi principle is to relax. When we are tense or in a hurry, our muscles get tight, and we move from our heads instead of our center. We want to learn to soften and move with ease.
In summary, to maintain our balance or to regain it requires focus and practice. Don’t take balance for granted!
As a teacher of tai chi for over 45 years, I can absolutely attest to its benefits. But at 71, I notice that if I sit too long or spend a day in bed, both my movement and balance are affected. So, in addition to walking, I practice tai chi and qigong daily, as well as teach and take classes. I also play with my balance by standing on one leg when I cook, pump gas, stand in line, and more.
If you do tai chi already, congratulations! Keep it up! And if you are new to tai chi, I welcome you to check out our class listings and consider improving your health today.
Margaret Olmsted is a Legacy Holder Representative to the Tai Chi Foundation (TCF) Board. She has been with the School of Tai Chi Chuan/Tai Chi Foundation since 1976. Margaret started studying tai chi with Patrick Watson in New York City, and under his guidance became an apprentice tai chi teacher, then over the years, a senior tai chi teacher. Margaret has taught at trainings to both the public and tai chi teachers throughout the United States and Europe. Currently Margaret resides in Los Angeles, California where she teaches online and in-person classes.
Photograph by Luis Vidal