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Loudoun’s modified tai chi program helps seniors Move for Better Balance

Using an evidence-based Tai Ji Quan Moving for Better Balance program, the region’s older adults could see up to a 50 percent improvement in their balance.

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Photo courtesy of Dr. Fuzhong Li/Tai Ji Quan

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 Population Estimates Program, 17.9 percent of Loudoun County’s population is over 55 years old, accounting for 67,131 individuals.

This statistic, coupled with the fact that one-third of older adults fall and sustain potentially life-threatening injuries each year, was one of the Loudoun County Area Agency on Aging’s main motivations for organizing a Tai Ji Quan Moving for Better Balance program led by adult exercise instructor and Sequoia Health personal trainer Woody McMahon.

Tai Ji Quan, an evidence-based balance training program recognized by the National Council on Aging, was created by Dr. Fuzhong Li, a senior scientist at the Oregon Research Institute. The practice is a modified form of tai chi (a Chinese fighting-turned-healing art characterized by fluid movements) that focuses on disrupting rather than maintaining stability. Over the course of six months, program participants have seen up to 50 percent improvement in their balance abilities.

“Typically when you take tai chi you spend a lot of time centered, but you can’t gain much balance by moving smoothly and gracefully. Your body needs to learn how to correct itself,” McMahon says. “If you’re walking along and I push you, I disrupted your balance, and you have to figure out how to stay standing. Dr. Li’s program is a program that generates self-induced perturbation, that slipping feeling you get when you slip on ice.”

One such self-induced perturbation form is called Part Wild Horse’s Mane, in which you stand facing the wall, put your hands in front of you as if you are holding a ball and step forward diagonally with your heel rather than your flat foot. This way, you are leaning your body forward as though you are about to fall, and then you quickly stick out your foot to catch yourself. Thus, your body alternates between moments of stability and instability.

“No matter how good an exercise is, there are very little evidence-based programs in a YMCA or health club,” McMahon says. “I wanted to see if I could find something that had the clinical papers to back it, something that could help myself learn something different and help provide an avenue for really improving physical confidence and concentration.”

Though Moving for Better Balance is a 24-week program, the Loudoun County Area Agency on Aging divided the program into two 12-week sessions. The first began in March and concludes May 19. The second will kick off May 31 and run until Aug. 16. Classes are held twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays from 2-3 p.m. at the Loudoun County Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services (20145 Ashbrook Place, Suite 170, Ashburn). The program costs $120 per person.

“Our goal is to help people understand how important it is to stay independent and active so they can enjoy their life,” says Lesley Katz, social worker and aging program specialist for the Loudoun County Area Agency on Aging. “This program is special in particular because we are the only site in the state offering this program.”

To garner interest in the program, the Loudoun County Area Agency on Aging conducted a fall risk assessment using a STEADI assessment from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 40 seniors ranging in age from 50-90 participated, performing various movements like standing on one foot, sitting in a chair with crossed arms, standing and sitting as much as possible in 30 seconds and walking 12 feet and back.

“I don’t think they realized that they were at risk until they were asked to do some of these activities,” Katz says.

“The big difference between a tai chi class and this one is that tai chi is physical, mental and emotional, whereas this is really technically based, and we want to prevent you from hurting yourself,” McMahon says.

To sign up for the program, interested individuals should email aaasupport@loudoun.gov

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