When you have diabetes, you know that falls come with the territory. If you are a senior citizen, this is doubly true.
Even worse is when you hike a lot on mountain trails, as I do. In the past few years I took several tumbles, fortunately not falling off a cliff or breaking a hip.
That never worried me much, but I was concerned that a fall could bring back an old knee injury that not long ago had made climbing difficult. When you are 75 years old with a history of 16 years of diabetes and a hiker, you’ve got to be careful.
And just being careful isn’t enough. All of us who have diabetes, who have more than a few years of life experience, or who hike need good balance.
So when a friend told me last year that the Tai Chi Chuan she was learning improved her balance, I listened. I remembered that Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that millions of people around the world practice for its defensive training or its health benefits. Tai Chi enhances our balance and body awareness through slow, graceful, and precise body movements.
About 35 years ago I had begun to learn the Cheng Man-ch’ing short form of the Yang style, which is probably the most widespread form of Tai Chi in America, but had not continued to practice. After my friend gave me the idea, as soon as the next class started at the local recreation center, I resumed my practice of Tai Chi. While I had forgotten almost everything I learned about it, and relearning the whole form will take a lot more time, I already know that my balance is much better.
For example, I can hold steady on one leg for a lot longer than I could before. Tai Chi gives the “quads,” the four quadriceps on the front of my thighs, an especially good workout.
Studies in the medical literature confirm my personal experience that Tai Chi improves our balance. One recent study even indicates that doing Tai Chi reduces our blood glucose level.
Fifteen years ago the National Institute on Aging, one of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, sponsored two pathbreaking studies. Each report appeared in the May 1996 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
In one study, by Steven L. Wolf, Ph.D., and colleagues at the Emory University School of Medicine, found that older people taking part in a 15-week Tai Chi program reduced their risk of falling by 47.5 percent. The other study, by Leslie Wolfson, M.D., and colleagues at the University of Connecticut Health Center, found that several interventions to improve balance and strength among older people were effective. Over a six-month period, the people who did Tai Chi maintained their improvements, particularly in strength.
A 2008 study in Medicine and Sports Science investigated the effects of Tai Chi on the levels of blood glucose, insulin, and insulin receptors among people with type 2 diabetes who practiced the form for eight weeks. By the end of the study their blood glucose decreased significantly, while high- and low-affinity insulin receptor numbers and low-affinity insulin receptor binding capacity increased.
My Tai Chi practice may not have made me immune from falling, but I do have a lot more confidence in my balance now. When the weather here warms up somewhat more than its current windchill value of minus 35°, I will be ready for my next hike.
HealthCentral published an earlier version of this article.