Striking a Balance

Tai chi session
A tai chi session at the Rocky Top Student Center
Feb. 26, 2014 - Four Quinnipiac University physical therapy students have joined forces with the Connecticut Collaboration for Fall Prevention (CCFP) to study the benefits of tai chi.

The CCFP has provided support for a comprehensive "Tai Chi for Better Balance in the Community" program to increase access to tai chi for older adults at risk of falling. 

This Capstone Research Project for physical therapy third-year graduate students is underway thanks to the efforts of Quinnipiac PT students Casey Abramski, Jennifer Fulton, Katherine House and Katie Petersen.

Tai chi, a martial arts form that enhances balance and body awareness through slow, graceful, and precise body movements, can significantly cut the risk of falls among older people, according to the National Institute of Aging.

"I have done different types of tai chi at assisted living centers on my clinical rotation, but never specifically for a better balance," House said. "This joint venture has really pushed us and driven us to analyze all facets and make sure our research is sound and reliable." 

The students have worked closely with Maureen Helgren, associate professor of physical therapy, Donald Kowalsky, associate professor of physical therapy, Rachel Pata, clinical assistant professor of physical therapy, and David Wallace, associate professor of physical therapy.

"Falls are extremely expensive for the individuals who fall, for those who care for them, for our state, society and health care system," Kowalsky said.

Kowalsky said Dorothy Baker, a research scientist at Yale University and director of CCFP, contacted Quinnipiac's physical therapy department in 2012 regarding the benefits of tai chi. As a result, the Quinnipiac faculty members studied under renowned tai chi expert Fuzhong Li of the Oregon Research Institute. Li specializes in research that examines the effects of exercise--including tai chi--on balance, physical functioning and risks of falls.

"We started thinking about ways to get involved on a much higher level, by applying our clinical expertise in rehabilitation to this important form of fall prevention. This also provides the perfect opportunity to involve our students in upcoming trends in therapy aimed at keeping people healthy and thereby lowering costs," Kowalsky said. 

The CCFP, which receives state funding and is based at Yale, aims to decrease the number of falls among older adults statewide and to identify opportunities in which state policy sustain changes, attitudes and knowledge of fall prevention.  
Falling is one of the most common reasons for home care patients to be re-hospitalized. Therefore, Quinnipiac students met with home health agencies staff in Hamden to explain the benefits of this particular form of tai chi. They provided tai chi pamphlets for these health care providers to distribute to their patients who are ready for discharge to home care, but may be at risk of falling if they don't continue to exercise. 

"The main idea is to help the patients have more optimal health and get the most out of life," said Petersen. "What I find the most exciting about this is looking at where it might go after this. We're just beginning. Eventually, we'd like to see tai chi covered by insurance. If that were to happen and to know that we were among the ones who started it would be awesome."

"It's very exciting because it really opens up a lot of doors," Fulton said. "It really helps to get people involved in staying healthy and interested in a project that can help them. It's just nice to have the resources to carefully develop and study this.

"The pamphlets contained an incentive for patients--a gift card for participating in a survey about whether or not they would be willing to try tai chi and their reasoning. Those who participate in the survey were also invited to attend free tai chi classes, which began Feb. 4.

"The cost of falls is astronomical," Wallace said. "Typically what happens from a home-health perspective is people get treated and do well but then they don't continue their exercise or activity levels.  Slowly they decline and start a cycle of falling, getting treated, declining, then falling again until eventually they really hurt themselves by breaking a hip or worse. The research suggests we can decrease the number of falls through tai chi."