If there’s anyone in Minnesota who could use a little tai chi in their day, it’s the state commissioners of human services and health — two high-profile and sometimes embattled state leaders.
But Lucinda Jesson and Dr. Ed Ehlinger weren’t swaying rhythmically at the armory building in St. Paul for stress relief Wednesday. Instead they were promoting the converted martial art’s benefits in reducing falls among elderly adults. Minnesota has the nation’s fourth-highest rate of fall-related deaths.
Exercise helps seniors “not only prevent falls but overcome their fears of falling,” said Jesson, commissioner of the Department of Human Services. “Sometimes that’s the problem.”
Tai Ji Quan, or tai chi, is a Chinese martial art characterized by slow-moving, precise movements. Recent studies have shown a variety of benefits, including improved balance that reduces the risks of falling.
Wednesday’s demonstration was led by Fuzhong Li of the Oregon Research Institute, who created a modified tai chi class for preventing falls, and has studied its benefits.
“Momentum, momentum, momentum,” he said as the two commissioners and a crowd of 100 people mimicked his movements. “We need to get the arms swinging!”
In July, Li published research showing his 24-week tai chi course was more effective in preventing falls among people with Parkinson’s disease than conventional and more costly stretching and strength programs. He was in Minnesota to train local aging organizations on how to lead the course.
“One chair. No equipment,” he said. “With yoga, you have to have a mat and get down on the floor. We don’t need that. We can do this anytime, anywhere.”
Falls have long been a concern in Minnesota, and not just because of icy winters and sidewalks. In 2013, falls caused more deaths in elderly Minnesotans than diabetes, kidney disease, influenza or pneumonia, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ehlinger, state health commissioner, wearing a bow tie and jacket, did his best to move like a dancer, and then a crane, under Li’s instruction. He said the simplicity of the approach makes sense. Preventing falls requires the basic exercise, diet and lifestyle habits that also prevent obesity and disease, he said. “It relates to good, healthy lifestyles.”