Tai chi classes designed to help seniors reduce falls

February 13, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • A group of seniors at Senior Center at Girls Inc. in Hagerstown during a workout of tai chi with chairs. The class is part of a 12-week series of classes hosted by the Washington County Health Department in conjunction with the Stepping On program, which is part of a fall prevention program.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff photographer

There are no swift foot-in-the-belly kicks, no black belts or hand-striking blows.

But make no mistake. This is an ancient Chinese martial art.

Hands and feet glide in choreographed sequences, there are movements with names like Embrace Tiger and an emphasis on mind-body connections.

But unlike its original intention of self-defense, this is a kinder, gentler version  —  a cross between shadow boxing and slow-motion ballet.

This is tai chi.

And in this case, it's geared specifically to the older adult.

The graceful, refined movements of tai chi came to the Washington County Senior Center in Hagerstown last week as part of an evidence-based program designed to improve balance and reduce falls.

The 12-week series of classes is sponsored by the Washington County Health Department and is made possible by a three-year grant from the State of Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Mary McPherson, program manager at the local health department, said tai chi is offered in conjunction with Stepping On — a fall prevention program designed to build confidence in the older adult.

McPherson said the tai chi classes at the Senior Center — which required advance registration — are the first in a series of classes that will be offered throughout Washington County.

Upcoming locations include the Village at Robinwood and the Hagerstown YMCA, both scheduled in March.

"Falls change everything and are a major fear as we age," McPherson said. "Broken hips are just one of the risks of falling, often resulting in a lack of mobility. And on the most serious end, if you fall and hit your head — that's when people die."

McPherson said the twice-weekly tai chi classes are designed to improve balance, flexibility and strength.

Program participants are given two baseline assessments prior to the beginning of the first class.

The tests are used to see if the program works — if there is an improvement in agility at the end of the 12 weeks, McPherson explained.

Participants are asked to see how many times they can sit and stand during a 30-second period and also are timed on how quickly they can sit, stand and walk around a cone.

About 43 people registered for the classes at the Senior Center, said center director Kathy Fisher.

"We were quite surprised by the turnout," she said. "But it was a good surprise. This shows that it's a popular offering and there is a need."

Donna Clevenger, who is the tai chi instructor for the Senior Center classes, said she attended a two-day course last year in Baltimore that was designed to teach tai chi specifically to older individuals.

Clevenger, a local personal trainer, said the program was created by an tai chi practitioner and his colleagues, who focused on trademark tai chi movements and, after years of research, turned them into therapeutic training.

"Anybody can do tai chi," she noted. "The movements are very calm and put you in a relaxed state. We take it nice and slow. To me, it's a moving meditation."

While the program offered by the health department focuses on preventing falls, the dance-like progression of meditative poses in tai chi is said to also help reduce stress.

"It's a low-impact activity and is especially suitable to the older adult," Clevenger said. "It's all about slow movement and isn't designed to build a lot of muscle. It will, however, strengthen your ankles and help your balance."

It also requires no special equipment and clothing, although participants in the local classes are asked to wear comfortable clothing and shoes.

By the end of the first class, participants had a glimpse at what to expect during the upcoming weeks.

As Clevenger stood before the group gathered in the gymnasium, there was respectful silence as they studied some of the moves they would be learning.

There were warm-ups, including neck drops from side to side and shoulder lifts to encourage relaxation; standing and shifting weight to the right, then the left; and elevating arms in a fluid motion with fingers pointed downward.

Each posture flowed into the next without pause, ensuring that the body was in constant motion.

"We want to bring mobility into those joints," Clevenger said.

More info       

For more information or to register for upcoming tai chi classes, call the Washington County Health Department at 240-313-3360.

• Information also is available at this number for Stepping On classes, also designed for older adults and focusing on strengthening and balancing exercises, medication management, home safety, footwear and vision.

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