One Gentle Step at a Time

Local Seniors use Tai Chi to Build Balance and Confidence

If your 79-year-old mother-in-law told you she was feeling steadier on her feet, able to focus more easily, and misplacing her keys less often, you might think she’d found a wonder drug. More likely, she’s discovered tai chi.

Throughout New England and all over the country, seniors are enjoying similar transformations, thanks to this ancient Chinese practice. Tai chi is helping seniors regain mobility, get healthy enough to stop taking some prescription medications, build balance and more. That’s no small victory, when you consider every 11 seconds, a U.S. older adult is treated in emergency room for injuries related to a fall.

What is tai chi? What does it do for you?

Rooted in self-defense, tai chi includes five original styles. From these, countless offshoots have sprung up, ranging in nature from gentle to vigorous. Most U.S. styles are health-oriented. Seniors tend to practice a gentle, fluid style, where one movement – or form – flows into the next.  

In southern Maine, Tai Chi for Health and Balance is a popular option offered by the Southern Maine Agency on Aging. SMAA enrolls about 300 seniors a year in this program. It was developed for the Arthritis Foundation and backed by evidence of impressive benefits, including:

  • Less pain
  • Better overall fitness
  • Better balance – as much as 30% improvement after three months
  • An increase in ability to move
  • More ease performing daily tasks
  • Increased strength and flexibility – as much as 15 to 20%
  • Fewer falls – one study reported a drop in fall frequency of nearly 50%, another, an impressive 70%
  • Tai chi also eases anxiety and boosts mood and energy level.

In New Hampshire, tai chi is part of a state-wide effort to reduce falls among older adults. N.H. communities offer a program called Tai Ji Quan: Moving for Better Balance,® developed by Dr. Fuzhong Li at the Oregon Research Institute. Li’s approach has shown to significantly reduce both fear of falling and risk of multiple falls in older people and people with Parkinson’s disease. The program transforms martial arts movements into a series that improves posture, body awareness, walking, coordination, range of motion in the ankles and hips, and lower-body strength.

Easy to get started

You don’t have to be fit to begin practicing tai chi. You don’t need special gear or shoes, just comfortable clothing that’s easy to move in. Once you learn the basics, you can practice anytime, anywhere, though many prefer the social aspect of an instructor-led group.

“We often hear from older adults who have tried tai chi and other group fitness and gotten easily lost or frustrated – and they find success with this approach,” says Anna Guest, Agewell Program Manager at SMAA.

More good news, there’s no awkward getting up and down off the floor. All movements are performed standing – many can be modified to do as you sit in a chair. There’s no jarring impact  and movements are gentle and close to the body, so even learners feel secure.

What’s it like to learn?

Geared for older adult learners, the 11-week SMAA beginner program covers 12 forms or movements. Each movement has a name, for example, ‘brush knee’ and ‘push the mountain.’  “Each week, there’s a new form to learn. They build on each other week to week, like stringing together flowing movements or learning a dance,” says Guest.

The “watch me, follow me, show me” method eases the class into each new movement, breaking more complex flows into small pieces that help you find success.

“We do everything in stages, and our teachers our excellent, says Patty, 85, who takes Tai Chi for Health and Balance in Falmouth. “They are so patient and make it all completely non-threatening.”

“Getting your hands and feet coordinated together can be tricky at first, but we’re all trying together, and that makes it fun,” says Marge, a Portlander also wrapping up her first session with Tai Chi for Health and Balance. Her doctor recommended this class to boost her balance and relieve arthritis pain.

Students are encouraged to supplement class work with practice at home – even just 5 to 10 minutes on most days. “This way, you not only build a habit, you’re incorporating movements into your muscle memory – and getting regular activity,” adds Guest.

“Many participants take the introductory Tai Chi for Health and Balance and then follow with a deepening workshop,” explains Doug Wilson, SMAA Agewell Program Specialist and tai chi instructor. “They get comfortable with the forms and learn the flow, then they move on to fine tune. Once you get the forms down, you can quiet your mind and focus even more on the principles of tai chi.”

When does the magic happen?

“Our instructors say it’s common to hear that new participants feel improvements in balance and body awareness after just a few sessions,” says Guest.

Charlotte, 78, from Portland, says that after 10 weeks, her balance in noticeably better. “I feel mentally stronger, too,” she adds. “I practice at home, too. I hate to miss a class.”

Several students have been so impressed with the benefits, they’ve decided to become volunteer teachers themselves. Mac Hayden, a retired banker, chose to get certified and volunteer because of the profound changes he experienced through tai chi. “I have a handicap in my foot that tai chi helped so much. And then there’s the sense of calming and the balance.”

Find tai chi near you

Ready to start feeling stronger and steadier, too? As you explore tai chi classes, ask the instructor about his or her teaching style and how he or she conducts class to help make sure it’s a good fit for you. These resources can get you started:

In southern Maine

Visit online: Southern Maine Agency on Aging

Call: 800-0427-7411.

In midcoast Maine

Visit online: Healthy Living for Me and search by ZIP code

Call 800-620-6036

In New Hampshire

Visit online: and refer to Tai Ji Quan location map.

Call the New Hampshire Falls Prevention Hub, 603-653-3415