Aging Well: Tai Chi eases and strengthens the mind and body

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Tamera Manzanares/Courtesy

From left, Cheryl Flagg, Doris Swift and Margrit Kipfer practice a Tai Chi sequence at the Steamboat Springs Community Center. They are among residents in Routt and Moffat counties who have benefited from Tai Chi classes offered by the VNA's Aging Well program.

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With names such as "Play the Lute" and "Push the Mountain," Tai Chi movements reveal both the relaxing and invigorating aspects of the exercise.

This combination of benefits is helping more and more older adults nationwide feel better. Residents ages 50 and older in Northwest Colorado have the opportunity to join this health movement with free Tai Chi classes designed specifically with their aging joints in mind.

In the past year, the VNA's Aging Well program has expanded Tai Chi for Arthritis classes, developed by the Arthritis Foundation, throughout Routt and Moffat counties.

The classes have inspired a dedicated following, including a group of women who met recently to practice Tai Chi in Steamboat Springs.

"My minor aches and pains always feel better afterward," said Cheryl Flagg, who has been participating in the Tai Chi classes for about a year.

In addition to less arthritic pain, Flagg and participants Doris Swift and Margrit Kipfer said they have better balance and also feel more relaxed as a result of their practice.

"I find it challenging and great for the mind because it makes you focus," Swift said. "It really makes you feel good."

Tai Chi basics

Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art combining deep breathing and mental concentration with slow movements that flow together gracefully. Although there are many styles of Tai Chi, the Arthritis Foundation's program is based on Sun style, which doesn't require deep bending or squatting, making it more comfortable for older adults.

Tai Chi from the Arthritis Foundation is based on a program developed by Dr. Paul Lam who, now in his 50s, has been using Tai Chi to combat his arthritis since he was diagnosed with the condition more than 30 years ago.

The full program includes six basic movements and six advanced movements in addition to warm ups and cool downs. Students can reverse direction of the 12 movements for more challenge.

Almost anyone can participate in the program. Students with limited mobility, for example, can do many of the movements seated or next to a wall or chair for stability. All class venues are wheelchair accessible and coordinators encourage anyone ages 50 or older to try out the program.

The VNA has adapted Arthritis Foundation Tai Chi to be more flexible to the needs of participants. In addition to beginning and advanced classes, the VNA offers Tai Chi for Health, which allows more time for practice and adjustment depending on the abilities and progression of each group.

Slowing down, getting stronger

Individuals with osteoarthritis, inflammatory arthritis and other related conditions typically experience pain, stiffness, less flexibility, muscle weakness as well as fatigue and sometimes depression.

Although these symptoms can discourage individuals from exercising, the right kind of movement and exercise is important in preventing stiffer joints and weaker muscles.

Effective arthritis exercise programs aim to increase flexibility for less joint pain, strengthen muscles supporting joints and improve participants' cardio respiratory fitness for better circulation and healing.

Tai Chi has been found to do all of these things while also promoting a positive state of mind through mental focus and concentration during Tai Chi practice.

Qigong is the breathing/meditative component of Tai Chi, which cultivates energy throughout the body, facilitating clarity and relaxation, and synchronizing the mind and body in the healing process.

A contrast to our anxious, fast-paced society, this aspect of Tai Chi can be the most challenging and rewarding.

"It really slows us down and gets us back down to how we should be doing things," Flagg said, noting that the social aspect of group practices helps make Tai Chi an even more positive experience.

Tai Chi's popularity has been propelled by a flurry of research suggesting participants also may experience better sleep, lower blood pressure, less depression and anxiety and better balance and coordination among other benefits.

Tom Collins, a physical therapist with SportsMed, has found the Tai Chi for Arthritis classes provide older patients an ideal transition from physical therapy to other activities.

Stronger core muscles and improved balanced are among the key benefits to individuals recovering from hip and knee replacements and other surgeries as well as neurological complications from strokes and other conditions.

The VNA's gentler Tai Chi approach also provides a more appropriate option for older adults who may not have the strength or mobility to participate in more rigorous types of Tai Chi.

"I'm thrilled to have this as a resource in the community," he said.

This article contains information from Dr. Paul Lam's "Resource Book of Tai Chi for Arthritis," and "Tai Chi: Improved stress reduction, balance and agility for all," at www.mayoclinic.com.

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