Fuzhong Li, Ph.d, is a leading Tai Chi researcher, based at the Oregon Research Institute. Since 2001, he has studied the effects of exercise, especially Tai Chi, on balance and falls prevention in aging populations.
Tai Chi: Moving for Better Balance is the CDC-approved falls prevention program that Dr. Li has developed based on his research.
When I visited him in Oregon recently, he showed me the refinements he's made to his program, we visited one of his classes and we played with some of the equipment he uses in his lab for testing different components of balance (see how I did below!).
The target population for this program are people in Medicare. They attend classes at community centers or senior centers and many are limited by chronic diseases or recovering from acute injuries.
Increasingly, Dr. Li is focusing on Parkinson's Disease, but his driving mission comes from a concern for public health on a large scale.
Evidence-Based Tai Chi
The Moving for Better Balance protocol focuses on adapting traditional Tai Chi training to therapeutic uses by integrating skills needed for ADLs (activities of daily living) like reaching, sitting, standing, and walking.
In the lab, Dr. Li measures gait, limits of stability, and sensory integration (visual, vestibular, and sensorimotor).
Here I am on one of the machines they use for testing:
His research has led to integrating the components that challenge ankle flexibility, teach balance recovery strategies, stimulate VOR (vestibulo-ocular reflex), and refine the ability to change speeds smoothly. As a result, traditional Tai Chi movements are modified to introduce these elements. For example, participants will follow their palm with eye tracking and head rotation instead of moving the head in line with the navel during trunk rotation.
To increase their limits of stability, participants are instructed to go beyond centering their weight in the feet as traditional practice instructs.
Similar modifications are made to with extra pushing and loading, in accordance with gait analysis, to regain skills typically lost in the target population.
One driving principle is to continuously move people from stability to instability and back.
Some of Dr. Li's newer work focuses on adding cognitive components to exercises. For example, writing "hold the ball" in the air with an imaginary ball held between the arms or spelling "hook" out loud as fingers form the beak hand or hook for Single Whip, one letter per finger.
Instructor Training and Program Development
He has trained instructors all over the country through government agencies but very few through private groups or Tai Chi schools. We were lucky to host him for a training in Boston in October 2010.
He closely monitors and upgrades his local instructors and they have extensive programs in the Eugene and Portland areas.
Based on ongoing research findings, he tweaks and upgrades the programs, for example, adding "pre-loading" to each move that mimics the loading stage of normal gait.
Dr. Li is committed to creating a functional program that is simple enough and inexpensive enough (there is no equipment used in the actual community-based program) to reach the tens of millions of Americans who are aging and want to take charge of an important dimension of their health and well-being.