Every second of every day in the U.S. an older adult falls, making that the leading cause of injury and death for people 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An analysis published today in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggests that practicing the ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi can slash that risk by half.

Researchers analyzed results from 10 studies involving more than 2,600 patients ranging in age from 56 to 98 years old. Participants took part in hour-long tai chi classes one to three times weekly for between 12 and 26 weeks.

Taken together, results of the studies showed that compared with those who didn’t practice tai chi, those who did reduced their risk of falling by 43 percent—and halved their risk of suffering an injury due to a fall.

Most surprising: The results suggest that tai chi worked better than other approaches such as physical therapy, balance training, resistance exercises, stretching, or yoga.

“This analysis provides good evidence that tai chi is a very effective way to prevent falls,” says Michael Wasserman, M.D., a geriatrician in Los Angeles and a board member on the Health in Aging Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by the American Geriatrics Society to support research, advocacy, and education on issues related to healthcare for older adults. “That’s a benefit that you may not get from other types of activities—even strength training.”

How Tai Chi Helps

Tai chi combines a series of slow, gentle movements with breathing and mental focus. It makes sense that people who practice tai chi may not only be less likely to fall, but also be less likely to hurt themselves if they do stumble, according to Wasserman.

“It improves balance and body awareness, which gives you more control,” says Wasserman. “We all trip from time to time,” he says, but tai chi practitioners may be more adept at recovering their footing and, if they fall, “better able to control the way they land to avoid serious injury.”

Our sense of balance tends to decline with age, but it can be improved through training,  says Wasserman.

Research also suggests doing tai chi has other health benefits, including lowering blood pressure and bad cholesterol levels and helping to relieve back pain.

Tips for Taking Up Tai Chi

Before starting a tai chi class, or any new type of physical activity, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor, advises Wasserman.

Anyone who has fallen or is worried about their balance should have a thorough medical exam, he says.

“Many different factors could affect your balance,” he says. You could have an underlying medical condition such as anemia or a buildup of fluid in your inner ear, for example, or a medication could be making you dizzy or lightheaded.

Once you get the green light from your doctor, check your local YMCA or recreational center for tai chi classes. You can also find a list of certified instructors who teach in your area through the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association.

People who don't have access to tai chi in their community can purchase DVDs or find videos with instruction on the internet says Linda Huang, director of the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association. But when possible, she advocates taking a class.

"Research shows benefit to doing tai chi in a group," she says. “There’s a social benefit; when people do tai chi together, they develop a rapport.” 

There are different forms of tai chi, but they should all provide similar health benefits, says Wasserman.

“The most important thing is to find a class where the instructor pays attention to you,” he says. “As with any activity that involves some technique, you will get more out of it and have less risk of hurting yourself if you learn to do it correctly.”

When you first start tai chi, Huang recommends talking to your instructor about any physical limitations. And don't hesitate to voice a concern if you are unsure about a move or it doesn't feel quite right she says. “A good instructor will show you modifications to make the moves comfortable for you."

Finally, Wasserman advises making tai chi one part of an overall fitness plan.

“Physical activity is the number one thing for healthy aging,” he says. He recommends combining two to three weekly tai chi classes with other types of exercise such as strength training and walking.

Editor's Note: This article and related materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).