Four years ago, at 74, Dottie Coplon was healthy, active and took aerobics classes to stay fit.
Then she ran into one of the common, crippling afflictions of seniors – a ruptured disc in her lower back. Aerobics was no longer an option.
“I had to do something calmer,” Coplon said.
She found it in tai chi, a self-defense martial art that involves slow, carefully planned movements and physical forms along with formalized breathing.
Over the last two decades, it's become popular in the West for its health benefits, including improved circulation and decreased stress levels and blood pressure. And one of the biggest benefits for seniors: It improves balance and reduces falls, which can cause serious injury and harm quality of life.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mayo Clinic and other leading health organizations all endorse tai chi. Because students don't have to walk, run or jump – it works tendons and ligaments more than muscle – tai chi is gentle enough on joints for even arthritic seniors, and they can realize its benefits without great exertion. It's been a godsend for Coplon.
“I just feel better overall,” said Coplon, a well-known neighborhood activist who's fought developers and planners over the years in Charlotte. “Something about the concentration you need to follow the instructions for the movements and breathing helped improve my memory. I have more energy and feel more alive….”
Digging for gold
Through his company, Inner Power Fitness, Mike Gentile teaches tai chi at the Levine Jewish Community Center and other area community centers.
The JCC class meets for an hour every Tuesday. During a recent session, Gentile, a thin, bespectacled man in his 50s with sparse salt-and-pepper hair, put 13 students from 63 to 90 through carefully designed “forms,” or movements.
Soothing flute-and-plucked-string music emanated from a small stereo. The students – most dressed in casual wear, not even workout clothes – followed Gentile as he slowly, as if in syrup, swept his extended arms gently through the forms, punctuating his gentle movements with instructions in the thick accent of his native New York.
“Come up. Straight overhead. My pinkies lead the way” – his arms were out front and in continuous, consistent motion; imagine synchronized swimming at quarter-speed. “Exhale down” – he moved left – “and inhale when I come up.” He brought his arms above his head, then to his waist, bringing them together to form a shovel and bending his knees. “We're gonna dig for gold,” he said.
Some students were more flexible and graceful than others. But everybody could follow, including an 89-year-old man and a 90-year-old woman.
“Any person can do it in any condition, and then do it for the rest of their lives. If they have knee problems, they can take shorter steps. If they can't walk, they can sit,” Gentile said.
“They know, when they walk into a tai chi class, that they're not going to have to exert themselves too much, so they can adapt to their own limitations and issues.”
Susan Cernyak-Spatz, the 90-year-old, had hip replacement surgery two years ago and partial knee replacement last year. (She's also well-known in Charlotte as a survivor of Auschwitz and author of a book, “Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042,” about her experiences.) She's taken Gentile's class for three years and said the tai chi helped her recover quickly from her surgeries. But that isn't even the primary benefit.
“Balance, balance, balance, balance,” she said after class. “At my age, you need balance and concentration … The demon of people my age is falling. Several times, I've begun to fall and managed to catch myself, and I'd have never been able to do that without tai chi.”
A potential ‘epidemic'
In North Carolina as in the nation, more seniors are falling more often, resulting in more frequent visits to emergency rooms and more deaths. And it comes as the massive baby boom generation grows older.
From 2000 to 2009, the number of unintentional fall deaths in North Carolina nearly doubled to 837, and most of the victims in 2009 were 65 or older, according to the government. In 2007, the state joined UNC Chapel Hill's Carolina Geriatric Education Center to form the N.C. Falls Prevention Coalition.
“We have just a wonderful coalition of people who realize this is an important issue facing this state,” said Lynn Beattie, who leads the National Council on Aging's fall prevention efforts. She added that North Carolina is one of the leading states in developing prevention plans. “If we don't address older adult falls, we truly will have a public health epidemic on our hands.”
Beattie said tai chi is a critical part of the NCOA's National Action Plan on preventing falls, which the agency adopted and began executing in 2004. Since then, she said, an increasing number of seniors and programs have overcome their sense of tai chi as something foreign.
“The fact that it improves quality of life, it's low-intensity and provides social support as well — tai chi brings all of those together,” said Ellen Caylor Schneider, a UNC Chapel Hill research scientist who leads North Carolina's Fall Prevention Coalition. “And people are seeing and feeling the benefits.”
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