Retirement Lifestyles - Local Tai Chi classes offer gentle workout for seniors

Published on Wed, Feb 3, 2010 by Tara Nelson

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When Guo Cheng first took Tai Chi classes in high school in her native country of China, the teacher told her she had a knack for the exercise. But a young Cheng, athletic and energetic, thought the practice was too slow and instead pursued more vigorous sports like running and bicycling.

Thirty years later and after suffering ciatic nerve pain for five of those years, she changed her mind.
“After just one year of praticing Tai Chi most of my problems such as tennis elbow, arthritis and ciatic nerve pain went away,” she said. “Of course, I still have knee problems, but that is getting better, too.”

The change of heart came after she ran into an old high school friend who practiced Tai Chi her whole life. Cheng said she had a few years’ worth of lessons from her friend and supplemented that with instructional DVDs. Soon after, she began teaching in Blaine.

“I kept having people coming up to me and asking if I taught Tai Chi,” she said. “So I figured I might as well. But really, I’m just learning it and teaching at the same time.”

Today, Cheng, who is 54-going-on-30, teaches classes at the Blaine senior center, Whatcom Fitness and out of her home studio in Blaine.

Her students, such as John Sand, 67, of Blaine, rave about their results since they started practicing.
Sand said he began attending the classes last October and has noticed improvements in balance, blood pressure and general wellbeing.

“I feel calmer,” he said. “It seems to lower my blood pressure and it’s good to keep learning something all your life.”

Karen Winquist, 68, of Blaine, agreed. Winquist said before coming to Tai Chi, she also suffered from knee problems and back pain. Since attending classes three times per week, she has had a “noticeable” difference in her balance, flexibility and pain.

“It’s a good stretching exercise and I love the rhythm,” she said. “My back is also better.”

Tai Chi, or Tai Chi Chuan, is an ancient Chinese exercise that uses slow, fluid movements that focus on posture, balance, mindfulness and breathing. Because it is considered an “internal exercise” it is gentle enough for seniors and those with arthritis or limited range of motion. It can even be done in a sitting position or by those confined to a wheelchair.

Before being introduced to mainstream Western culture, Tai Chi’s health benefits were mostly described in terms of Eastern medicine with a focus on the energy meridians that run throughout the body. Tai Chi, along with other practices, help free up blocked energy or “chi” that is thought to be a precursor illness or disease.

However, recent studies find extensive tangible health benefits that are being increasingly accepted by the Western medical community. A 1999 study in the British medical journal The Lancet found that regularly practicing Tai Chi can significantly decrease blood pressure in older adults.

And a 2003 Journal of American Geriatric Society study found that Tai Chi could reduce fall injuries in older, frail adults.

Tai Chi has also been shown to improve attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) in youth and adults. A 2001 study by the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies instructed 13 adolescents with ADHD to participate in Tai Chi classes twice a week for five weeks, during which teachers rated the children’s behavior on a scale. After the 10 Tai Chi sessions the adolescents displayed less anxiety, improved conduct, less daydreaming behaviours, less inappropriate emotions, and less hyperactivity. These improved scores persisted over the two-week follow up in which no Tai Chi was practiced.

Cheng teaches classes at Whatcom Fitness and Physical Therapy from 5 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and at her home studio from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. and from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. on Wednesdays. Cheng also teaches a special class for senior men called “Little Boy Class” from 6 to 7 p.m. Wednesday and from 5 to 6 p.m. Saturday; a fan class from 8:20 to 9:20 a.m. and a traditional sword class from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Drop-in rates for all classes are $5.

Beginning February 22, the senior center class will be guided by Eileen Heming, of Birch Bay. Heming will teach the short-form version consisting of eight movements and several self-massage techniques to improve circulation, relaxation and joint flexibility.

Those classes are scheduled Mondays from 9 to 9:45 a.m. and from 9:45 to 10:45 a.m. Cost is free with a membership. The Blaine Senior Center is located at 763 G Street in Blaine. For more information, call 332-8040.
Heming said she practiced the yan-style Tai Chi in her youth before “getting busy with life, college and family,” but is now coming back to the exercise as a way to keep in shape.

“I love it,” she said. “This is the first winter I haven’t suffered seasonal affective disorder. I’ve also noticed my abdominal muscles are stronger, I don’t have as many back or neck problems and I have a lot more energy. feel calmer and am more easily able to focus. The best part is it’s free with a senior center membership.”

For more information or to sign up for a class, call 332-1435 or email black92619@aol.com.