Is There a Relationship Between Aging and Hand-Eye Coordination?

We know that Tai Chi improves our balance and coordination as we learn to move our body as a unit. Did you ever wonder whether Tai Chi improves hand-eye coordination? You might be surprised to learn that it does! For purposes of this blog, let’s shorten hand-eye coordination to “HEC.” That saves me from typing it repeatedly.

HEC helps us translate stimulus from our eyes into our body movements and action. The benefits are wide spread and include:

  • Improving our central and peripheral vision

  • Training the eye and brain to pick up details and recognize changes

  • Making it easier to switch between near and far distances and depth

  • Mitigating clumsiness and making us more surefooted

  • Improving mobility and flexibility

  • Making complicated and simple tasks easier

Most people don’t think much about HEC until they begin having problems with it. Now the bad news: age is one of most common causes of HEC decline. As performance accuracy and speed decline, so do dexterity and reaction time. The last two are very important in HEC. Studies have shown that perceptual motor skills decline as a person ages, and we now know that changes in the brain affect our motor skills and thus our HEC.

Age-related visual changes, decline in neuromuscular communication and neurological disorders occur as we age. This is why most younger people interpret and react to “near-body space” in a very different way than older adults. The good news is that HEC can be improved through exercises such as swimming, Tai Chi, juggling and catching, as well as any activity that combines eye tracking and hand movement.

Research on Tai Chi has already shown marked improvements in fall reduction, balance and flexibility, but few studies had been done on motor control in the upper extremities. A 2008 study of motor control and HEC coordination in Tai Chi practitioners tested two groups of elderly subjects. One group practiced Tai Chi for more than three years, while the control group were active, healthy adults who had never practiced Tai Chi. The subjects were asked to stroke target sensors in a device with computer recording. The practitioners of Tai Chi demonstrated better results on both the “precise motor control of hand and eye hand coordination tests” than the group that did not practice Tai Chi.

Research has shown that quality of life is closely related to physical fitness. However, not all exercises are suitable for older persons due to the effects of aging on joints, eyesight and balance. Tai Chi, however, is suitable for most ages and physical conditions. Tai Chi movements, such as cloud hands, consist of diaphragmatic breathing and focused movements with the eyes following the graceful movements of the upper extremities. Tai Chi’s deliberate and controlled movements improve HEC.

In Tai Chi, we understand that practice, practice and more practice is important for keeping the body flexible, strong and healthy. By using both arms and legs, and bending while keeping our movements smooth, we not only stretch tight muscles, but improve HEC. Mindfulness (or focus) is also essential to building full-body coordination. Interestingly, some virtual reality (VR) programs incorporate Tai Chi movements to improve HEC.

So what can you do? Keep practicing your Tai Chi, swim, juggle and maybe even try virtual reality. And don’t forget to get regular eye examinations.

And don’t forget, having better HEC will help you reach for that glass of Moscato at happy hour without spilling a single drop!