Tai chi, an ancient Chinese martial art, may improve senior citizens' strength and help them avoid falls, South Korean researchers find.

"Regular exercise is very important as we get older because when we get to 65 we start losing muscle strength at a rate of up to two percent per year" say the researchers in a news release.

It is effective in fall prevention for older people because of improvements in strength and balance, they say.

The researchers tested tai chi in older adults. The slow, gentle, and continuous movements help them develop stronger muscles, better balance control, concentration, and psychological well-being.

They found benefits including:

— Stronger knees and ankles

— Better balance and flexibility

— Improved walking

— More confidence in the ability to avoid falls

The tai chi students had fewer falls than others who didn't take the class.

'Safe and Easy Exercise'

"Tai chi exercise is recognized as a low-intensity exercise that can be safely and easily applied to older adults to prevent falls in the long-term," the researchers write.

They included Jung Hyun Choi, PhD, RN, a lecturer in the nursing department of South Korea's Daewon Science College.

Their study appears in the Journal of Advanced Nursing.

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About Tai Chi

Tai chi uses slow, fluid body movements. It's not a jarring form of exercise.

Tai chi has gotten attention from scientists for nearly a decade. The first two tai chi studies funded by the National Institute of Aging were published in 1996.

Those studies found many of the same benefits as seen in the new South Korean study.

Health experts want everyone to get enough exercise. That includes older adults.

Stronger seniors may be less likely to fall or to hurt themselves if they fall. That could mean staying independent for a longer time, say Choi and colleagues.

Read WebMD's "Graceful Movements of Tai Chi Help Body and Soul"

Falls in Seniors

Every year, about 30 percent of people aged 65 and older — and living on their own — fall. Falls are more common in long-term care facilities, where 40 percent-50 percent of residents fall in any given year. Some of the risk factors that lead to falls in seniors include imbalance, muscle weakness, and lack of flexibility — all of which are modifiable, they write.

Those figures are cited in Choi's study.

Seniors who fall and are seriously injured may take a long time to recover.

Meanwhile, they may be sidelined from their normal routine. That can lead to physical decline and depression, writes Choi.

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Tai Chi Training

Choi's study included 68 people. They were nearly 78 years old, on average.

About half of the group took a 12-week tai chi course. The others didn't get tai chi lessons.

There are different types of tai chi, say Choi and colleagues. They used tai chi's "sun-style" form in the study.

Strength, Flexibility, Balance

The 12-week program was finished by 29 tai chi students and 30 people in the comparison group.

The tai chi students had stronger knees and ankles than their peers. They also improved in flexibility and walking.

Balancing on one foot with their eyes open was easier for the tai chi students. But standing on one foot with closed eyes was tough for everyone.

Fewer Falls for Tai Chi Students

The tai chi group had fewer falls during the study.

Nine tai chi students had falls. That's 31 percent of the group. Half of the comparison group had falls during the same time.

The difference in the number of falls wasn't as big as the researchers hoped. A larger, longer study should be done for more insight, they say.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Choi, J. Journal of Nursing, July 2005 vol 51: pp 150-157. News release, National Institute on Aging. News release, Journal of Advanced Nursing.