By DR. VICTOR S. SIERPINA

A fall in an older adult can be a serious matter. A hip fracture can lead to disability and frequently results in death in up to 50% within a year. The reasons for falls are complex, usually involving weakness, poor sight, balance, medication side effects, drops in blood pressure, chronic diseases, and bone and joint problems.

Identifying ways to reduce the risk of falls and the fear of falling is a major health challenge in older adults. One approach that has been widely studied and found to reduce falls by 25-50% is the ancient, slow-moving, graceful martial art known as Tai Chi. The flowing, measured movements in various directions emphasize balance, flexibility, and rooted movement.

I learned about Tai Chi just after graduating from my residency at a wellness conference and have been practicing it for over 30 years. In fact, I started Tai Chi for therapy after I fell off a ladder working on the house and injured my knee. Each morning since, you might see me on my back deck in a slow, meditative movement, stepping, bobbing, lifting legs and arms in a way that may look a bit odd. When I first practiced Tai Chi in public places, it was often to the hoots of kids and the stares of adults unfamiliar with it. I tended to retreat after that to private places but now, Tai Chi is well enough known that practicing on the beach or in a park, even in an unused airport gate rarely rates a second glance.

Tai Chi is an ideal exercise for those at any age, but particularly for the mature adult. While slow, it offers moderate cardiovascular and aerobic fitness level workouts. It requires no special equipment, clothing, or even shoes. It can be done in the privacy of your home, office, back yard, in nature, or about wherever and whenever you choose. It offers the benefits of a moving meditation if you don’t like sitting in silence.

Dr. Kristen Peek at UTMB has submitted a grant proposal to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine to study Tai Chi as an intervention to reduce falls and fall risk. If funded next year, she will enroll patients identified at the UTMB Emergency Department who have fallen. They would receive training in three hourlong sessions per week over a 6-month period in Tai Chi at the UTMB Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The already robust Tai Chi program at OLLI offers a perfect setting for such a research study.

However, you don’t have to wait until federal funding is made on this grant to start learning Tai Chi. If you are over 55, you can enroll in classes at OLLI now. Other options include online DVD’s, certified instructors, even books and manuals that can lead you through some of the basic movements and help you stand and walk more confidently, with better balance, strength, and poise.

Tai Chi looks more like dance or ballet than a punch-kick martial art, although it has applications for self-defense, which is an added benefit. So before you fall, fall into a Tai Chi practice for relaxation, balance, flexibility, and well-being.