The proprioceptive system in Tai Chi Chuan

Tai Chi Chuan or Tai Chi, internal style of Chinese martial arts – born as a fighting technique and today known in the West above all as gymnastics and as a preventive medicine technique – has been practiced for centuries in China by young and old; Its beneficial effects on health, in particular the maintenance of balance control in the elderly, have increasingly attracted the attention of Western scientific researchers.

Among all the benefits obtainable with the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, one of the most evident is certainly the improvement of alertness; This is followed by the control of the positions of the various parts of the body and the improvement of agility and sense of balance. These benefits are obviously interesting for everyone, but they acquire a particular significance for the elderly who are most exposed to the danger of falls.

“How does a man maintain a posture straight or tilted against the wind blowing against him? It is evident that he possesses a sense through which he knows the inclination of his body and that he possesses the ability to readjust and correct all the deviations in relation to the vertical” (Charles Bell, 1837).

If we close our eyes and try to establish the position of our legs, arms and head, we will find that it is an easy task, based precisely on proprioception. If we now put our feet on the floor, close our eyes for a minute and, trying not to move, pay attention to them, we will notice that with the passage of time we lose the “sense” of their position, because the latter becomes less accurate in the absence of movements. However, as soon as we open our eyes again, we will find exactly the sense of position of the feet: the eyes help us.

The mental control of body movements, typical of Tai Chi Chuan, intensely and dynamically stimulates the ability to listen to the signals that reach the brain from our sensors. The graceful and fluid movements of the limbs are of varying amplitude and direction and are effectively complemented by weight shifts and torso rotations. The positions and movements of the parts of the body are controlled with a meticulousness and concentration that are not reflected in other disciplines. The awareness of our body and in general the integration between body and mind are particularly enhanced.

Neuroscience is now showing that sensory information comes from all sense organs and collaborates in giving an image of the world.

Those who practice Tai Chi not only have a better cardiorespiratory function, but also perform better in tests related to balance control, flexibility and muscle strength. In addition, the risk of falls is reduced by almost 50%.

Postural balance requires proprioceptive acuity and precise neuromuscular control. The decline of proprioception with the passing of years is a contributing factor to falls in the elderly and that can be influenced by regular physical activity.

Older people who regularly practice Tai Chi not only showed better proprioception of the ankle and knee joints than the sedentary older control group, but also better ankle kinesthesia than older people who practice swimming or other sports. The remarkable benefits of practicing Tai Chi on proprioception result in maintaining balance control in the elderly.

Proprioceptive exercise seems to have better effects on balance control in older adults than bioenergetic physical activities (swimming, cycling and running). Tai Chi requires continuous and slow movement with small to wider expressions of motion, the shift of body weight from unilateral to bilateral, and circular movements of the trunk and extremities involving isometric and isotonic contractions.

The reason for these benefits seems to consist in the functional enhancement of the “proprioceptors” that derives from the practice of Tai Chi Chuan.

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