Tai chi: Making moves to help stroke survivors

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - A University of Arizona study has found tai chi can help stroke survivors avoid falls, but that's not the only benefit.

Tai chi is an form of exercise comprised of focused, flowing movements and deep breathing.

It was developed in ancient China.

In today's world it's an inexpensive and readily available way to change the lives of stroke survivors.

We attended a class in Tucson at Great Harmony Tai Chi Chuan, led by Jeff Zauderer who is called Sifu (SEE-foo).

Al Freitchen easily follows the movements.

It's hard to believe this is a man who had a stroke in 2007.

Doctors told Freitchen he would not experience much more improvement than he had.

Therapy had helped him regain speech and some movement, but for him, it wasn't enough.

"I wasn't happy where I was at, so I started looking for ways of trying to get things working again," Freitchen says.

That's when Freitchen enrolled in a University of Arizona study we first told you about three years ago.

UA researcher and College of Nursing Assistant Professor Dr. Ruth Taylor-Piliae became the first researcher in the United States to try to see if tai chi could help improve stroke survivors' balance and lower their risk of falling.

The results are in.

Taylor-Piliae says, "Stroke survivors fall up to seven times more each year than a healthy older adult of the same age."

Preventing falls is important because the effects of just one fall can cascade into even more problems.

"When they fall they suffer things like fractures. That could be an arm or a hip. Maybe that leads to a fear of falling. And when they're afraid of falling, then they stop moving and that leads to     disuse problems. That also leads perhaps to social isolation which then leads to depression," says Taylor-Piliae.

The four-year study put people into three groups.

One group was enrolled in a beginning tai chi class.

The second group exercised through the Silver Sneakers program for Medicare-eligible adults.

The third group got what's called usual care.

"Those in the tai chi group were the only ones to have fewer falls. And the tai chi folks had about one-third the amount of falls the other two groups did," says Taylor-Piliae.

Other studies have shown tai chi reduces stress and improves quality of life.

Freitchen says his improvement was gradual, and his friends noticed first.

"I was communicating better than I was before. People would see me walk around and my gait had gotten more regular," he says.

And something else changed too as he got better and better at tai chi and his coordination improved.

Freitchen's self-confidence grew.

"The ability to do it. The feeling that I was capable of doing it meant quite a lot," Freitchen says. "I'm happier with me than I was a couple of years ago. We'll put it that way."

Dr. Taylor-Piliae wants to do more research to learn how Tai Chi works to lower the risk of falls.

She hopes her studies will lead to ways to better target treatment of patients.

The study was funded by the American Heart Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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