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Tai chi: A true fountain of youth?

Tai chi classes at Medical City Plano. Photo by E4C Photography. A devastating bout with Guillain-Barre syndrome left my mother paralyzed from the neck down when she was only 34 years old.
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Tai chi classes at Medical City Plano. Photo by E4C Photography.

A devastating bout with Guillain-Barre syndrome left my mother paralyzed from the neck down when she was only 34 years old. Although she eventually learned to walk again, she never fully regained her sense of balance and was prone to falls the rest of her life. By the time she had turned 65, a slip on some ice in Idaho left her with pins and screws along the full length of her left leg. Seven years later a misstep in a parking lot broke several bones in her right leg. Finally, in 2004, she tripped over a vacuum cleaner cord in her own home, resulting in a broken hip that would eventually contribute to her death at a relatively young age of only 75.

Mom’s series of falls was certainly not an exception. She was part of a growing group of seniors, particularly women over the age of 65, whose lives are dramatically shortened or negatively affected by a fall. According to an article published on the Harvard University website: “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three older adults falls dangerously each year. In 2014, about 27,000 older adults died from falls, more than 2.8 million were treated in emergency rooms, and 800,000 were hospitalized. Falls are the leading cause of death among adults over 65, and the death rate from them has soared in the past decade.”

A generation later, I have moved into the age where falls have become a threat to my continued activity and my ability to care for my husband and my home. But unlike my mom, I have found a secret weapon, one shared with millions of enthusiastic seniors in the United States.

What is this magic formula for health? It is the ancient practice of Tai chi, a form of exercise involving slow, methodical movements that engage both mind and body. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of this ancient form of exercise. An article appearing in Time Magazine in 2017 referenced more than 600 academic papers extolling its virtues.

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Tai chi classes can be found at community centers, at gyms, and in private classes in almost any large city. Locally, the Center for Living Well, sponsored by the Medical City Plano, offers classes at the beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels. Although the classes attract some younger adherents, the average age of the 150 students per week runs between 65 and 70 years of age.

Classes are taught by two employees of the Cardiac Rehab Department. Lynn Kubic, a personal trainer and cardiac rehab technician, has been teaching the art of Tai chi for eleven of her fifteen years at the hospital. She first became aware of the practice as a cool-down activity for swim classes she was teaching. Later, Lynn volunteered to teach Tai chi to the Plano community. Participants loved the classes, and Medical City Plano decided to invest time, money, and effort into the new venture.

Denise Clarkston, who holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology, joined Lynn two years ago and now alternates teaching classes at the new facility. She has her own testimony of personal benefits from Tai chi. Several years ago, Denise suffered injuries in a car accident. After two years of teaching classes, she has acquired a new range of motion in those damaged areas of her body. Like Lynn, she holds a teaching certification that requires the passing of a written test, intensive hands-on training, and hours of practical experience.

For many years, Lynn and Denise taught at various available spots at the hospital. But they saw the culmination of their dreams for the program congeal last October. The opening of a permanent location at 3900 West 15th Street, across the street from the main Medical City Plano hospital, allowed an expanded scope of classes. In addition to the three levels of Tai chi, the duo also teaches stability ball exercises, chair exercises, and SAIL (Stay Active and Independent for Life) classes. But Tai chi remains the favorite class, with many participants attending multiple classes and levels throughout the week.

The beginning class features Sun Style Tai chi, which according to the Center, links Qigong (breathing that promotes internal harmony) with Ying and Yang (a balanced relationship between mind and body.) It is especially helpful for those with arthritis and other mobility issues and is approved by the Arthritis Foundation of USA.4 It was developed in 1997 by Dr. Paul Lam, a family physician practicing in Australia for over 40 years.

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While the practice of Tai-chi is most often associated with fall prevention, author Ryan Malone lists many other benefits as well. Participants in this program were eager to share their own anecdotal experiences to back up his findings. Some focused on the physical benefits of Tai-chi.

Malone: Improves lower body and leg strength

Paula C: Tai-chi has helped me regain the ability to go from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane.

Malone: Promotes deep breathing

Fran L, 76: Tai-chi has helped my breathing. I can do so much more now, like working in my yard.

Malone: Helps with arthritis pain

June P, over 60: It’s easy on the joints!

Malone: Improves balance and stability by strengthening ankles and knees

Faye J: I enrolled my husband, Jerry, and me after several incidents in which Jerry had stumbled and nearly fell. At his age (80+), I was afraid he might take a serious fall. But since becoming part of the class, I have not seen him stumble at all. Clearly, this has helped him.

Malone: Promotes faster recovery from strokes and heart attacks

Juanita S: With a triple bypass in 2002 and a heart valve in 2016, rheumatoid arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, and hypertension, I really couldn’t see much of a future for me. But thanks to these classes, I have better balance and strength and increased energy.

Others extolled the mental and emotional benefits of this type of exercise.

Malone: Accumulates energy by releasing endorphins rather than depleting it

Ted B, age 76: I started Tai chi just as something to get me out of the house following my wife’s passing. Since I started in November, I have lost about 30 pounds, seen an increase in flexibility, feel more relaxed, and, in general, feel better overall with more energy and stamina.

Malone: Enhances mental capacity and concentration

Sarah S, age 62: My most significant observation is the changes in my brain. I am learning new things and making new neural pathways.

Malone: Relieves physical effects of stress

Mary M, late 60’s: Before beginning Tai chi about a year ago, I was exhausted and stressed from raising a teenager and caring for my husband following a stroke. During the past year, I have focused on being in the moment. I feel less stressed and more energized. For me, Tai chi became a starting point to taking better care of myself and re-focusing my life. The class got me back on track.

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Finally, some celebrated the socialization effect of the classes. According to Lynn, “Participants form friendships among themselves. They notice when someone is not in class and worry about them.” Participants echo that sentiment. Juanita S. added, “(My Tai-chi) family has helped me become stronger, be a better person, and have meaning in my life.”

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Like most good habits, of course, Tai chi only works when practiced religiously. The focused classes at the center can provide instruction and socialization, but participants are encouraged to practice throughout the week. I have taken that counsel personally and have incorporated a daily dose of Tai chi into my exercise routine of aerobics and strength training. Having seen the pain and disability my mom endured, I am doing everything I can to ensure that my bones stay intact. And if Tai-chi strengthens my mind and body in the process, so much the better. After all, staying active and healthy is central to everything else on my retirement bucket list. And I think if Mom were here, she would be my staunchest supporter in reaching that goal.

To register for Tai chi classes at Medical City Plano click here.