Tai Chi, Foot Health and Falls

As someone who has reached a ‘certain age,’ I can attest to some common changes that come with ageing, among which is a worsening sense of balance. This can arise from a number of causes, including your vision, failure of nerve signals from the inner ear and foot problems. The consequences of balance problems can be mild, but can also have a major effect on your quality of life.

Loss of confidence in walking on uncertain terrain, climbing stairs and carrying things can be distressing and debilitating. And then there are falls.

It is no wonder that research is being done to find the causes of balance problems, and ways to mitigate their effects – for humanitarian, political and financial reasons. There’s lots of interesting information ‘out there.’ In this blog I’m going to focus on the value of foot care in helping to improve balance and reduce the risk of falls.

A summary article by the Harvard Medical School points out one fact that may seem obvious: people with foot pain are more likely to fall than those with out pain. They also note that clinical trials show that exercise programmes, both foot-specific and some others, do reduce the risk of falls.

The take-away? Do what you can to prevent or alleviate foot pain. While there is not a lot of settled science, some suggestions have come out of the research so far. If these seem like common sense, that’s probably good.

  • Choose your shoes wisely – and wear them
  • Keep your weight under control
  • Wear orthotics if need be
  • Exercise

A good foot specialist can give you advice on any and all of these. One nearby is Fitter Feet for Life, in Clapham. I declare an interest here – the proprietor, Diane, is a friend of mine. Other foot clinics provide similar services.

When it comes to exercise, there are those that target specific issues – for example strengthening ankle muscles, increasing range of motion of toes or preventing toe curling – all of which are useful for the ageing foot.  These are described in the Harvard Medical School article.

In addition, more general exercises appear to help prevent foot problems and/or falls. A major study by the Oregon Research Institute of Tai Chi and fall prevention concluded that ‘A three-times-per-week, 6-month Tai Chi program is effective in decreasing the number of falls, the risk for falling, and the fear of falling, and it improves functional balance and physical performance in physically inactive persons aged 70 years or older.’ Other studies appear less conclusive regarding fall prevention, but support the conclusions on the other benefits, for younger people as well.

The Tai Chi Union for Great Britain works with the NHS to study the effectiveness of Tai Chi and Chi Kung in healthcare. Here’s a link to an interesting article, based on personal experience and opinion.

My own experience is that a number of my students report that practising tai chi and exercises based on tai chi principles does indeed make them feel that their balance is improving and that they are more confident on their feet. Whether this is due to the nature of the physical exercise, an increased awareness of weight placement, muscle tension, body position and movement or calm mindfulness, it seems to work.