In the past few years a number of studies have come out demonstrating that people who regularly practice Taiji tend to perform better than age-matched peers on laboratory tests of balance, motor skills and cognition. Last year, researchers from Vanderbilt and University of Arizona published a study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science exploring a very practical question: Do the benefits that Taiji practitioners experience lead to safer driving?
Of course, answering such a question definitively can be quite costly, so the authors took a preliminary step in this direction by recruiting community-based Taiji practitioners and comparing their test scores with the normative values for their age. Think of this as a kind of standardized testing, something like achievement testing for Taiji. These tests, however, covered a wide range of sensor-motor, cognitive and physical functions, especially those known to be relevant to driving performance
This particular study focused on older drivers (65+) because a) age-related declines in psycho-physical performance and cognition are predictors of accidents and b) older adults can be more vulnerable to serious injury and death in car accidents. Even though I am not yet in this age range myself, I took an interest in this study because many of my students who drive to class are, and I hope some day to be as young as they are!
The study recruited participants from a wide variety of community-based Taiji programs in the middle-Tennessee region of the US. Participants (N=58; 42 Female, 16 male) were accepted into the study if they were formally trained in Taiji and practicing weekly with 3+ months of experience. Most of the participants had practiced for more than a year and engaged in practice serval times a week both in groups and on their own. They practiced a variety of Taiji styles including Yang, Sun and Chen styles.
So how did they do? Taiji practitioners in this study performed significantly better than normal for their age on a range of sensory, cognitive and physical function tests that predict better driving performance. They also scored quite high on subjective measures of wellbeing and mindfulness, which the authors believed might also lead to safer driving via better attention, less distraction and higher levels of physical function.
Although these results are promising, they are not conclusive due to a number of factors that could be leading to better performance, which may not be related to Taiji. For instance, maybe the Taiji players who volunteered for the study were already the best drivers in their class meaning they were more cognitively and physically fit in comparison to their classmates.
Without a randomized controlled trial to reduce threats to validity, many critics will question these results. The good news is that practitioners in this study scored significantly above average almost across the board, which is hard to ignore, allowing this kind of exploratory data to provide the kind of preliminary evidence needed to support a more costly and rigorous study testing actual driving performance over time. Stay tuned!
About The Author
Matthew Komelski teaches courses for the Department of Human Development, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Blacksburg, Virginia, where he recieved a Ph.D. in Human Development. He is an avid researcher in his teaching areas, and teaches a variety of martial arts classes. Matt was on the committee that planned the content areas for this newsletter 12 years ago. Reporting research regarding taiji and qigong was one of 3 research priorities identified. Matt has been the leading author in this area since the newsletter's inception.