August 2010 Issue
Easy Does It
Older adults reap the rewards of practicing age-old exercises.
Martha de Acosta doesn’t need scientific proof to understand the
benefits that yoga, tai chi and qigong bestow. She’s felt them firsthand. The 68-year-old Shaker Heights resident
credits her 40-year adherence to these low-impact, calming exercises —
which promote strength and flexibility — with helping her recover from a
debilitating auto accident five years ago.
“I was in a lot of pain to the point where I was walking with a cane,” she recalls. “My exercise routine brought back my ability to move unaided.”
Rooted in the teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism, yoga is comprised of a series of poses and controlled breathing exercises designed to reduce stress and increase range of motion through stretching. Two mind-body practices that originated in ancient China, tai chi and qigong also involve gentle movements, deep breathing, meditation and balance.
“I believe in qigong so much that I’ve practiced it every morning since 1997,” says Ron Lee, 74, who lives at Laurel Lake Retirement Community in Hudson. “I can’t remember a time when I’ve ever had a headache, and I’ve never had to take a painkiller.”
The retired teacher adds that he consistently receives a clean bill of health following his annual physical and has been able to main the same weight — 155 pounds — on his 5-foot-10-inch frame that he had when he graduated from high school.
“Maybe genetics does play a role here,” he says, “But I do think qigong has added to my sense of wellness.”
Practitioners aren’t the only ones touting the benefits each of these disciplines elicits. The health care community concurs.
“People who have Parkinson’s disease, people with mild dementia, people with diabetes — everyone is going to get something out of these exercises,” explains Dr. James Barry, a family practice physician and geriatrician who has taught tai chi at Otterbein Lebanon Retirement Living Community. Barry backs up his assertion by citing the results he and his colleagues at Dayton’s Providence Medical Group conducted with 14 older adults who engaged in tai chi for one hour a week over a three-year period.
“On average, there’s a 35 percent chance that an older adult will suffer a fall annually,” Barry says. “And there’s a 17 percent chance that it will be severe enough to cause a fracture or an injury that will limit their ability to get around.”
Among the 14 people taking tai chi, the occurrence of falls was reduced to .04 percent — or less than one per year — over the course of the study.
“Those results,” he says, “are phenomenal.”
Other cases in point: A report issued by the Mayo Clinic last year explained that 10 or 12 weeks of regular yoga and tai chi sessions can result in better digestive health and help retard common effects of aging, including limited mobility and loss of bone density. In the 1990s, two studies sponsored by the National Institute on Aging found that tai chi exercises cut the fear of falling among older people. And, according to the Web site Web MD, qigong has been found to help control high blood pressure and positively impact the body’s immune system.
That’s no surprise to de Acosta.
“I can read the research about these exercises, but I don’t have to,” she says. “I’m living proof these practices work.”
The sign on the door offers respite, asking all who enter to do so quietly and mindfully.
It’s Tuesday afternoon, time for the weekly yoga class at Westminster-Thurber, and the students who congregate in the chapel are more than ready to pay attention to that directive. The course, which has been offered at the continuing-care retirement community for three years, gives participants a chance to de-stress — moment by moment, breath by breath.
“So many people think yoga is all about bending yourself into a pretzel,” says registered yoga teacher Angela LaMonte, 53. “But that’s not really it at all. The gentle physical movements yoga promotes help you live more comfortably and enjoy every beat of life.”
“The whole point,” she adds as class commences, “is to think about what you’re doing right now, at this moment.”
LaMonte begins the session by telling students to sit on the edge of their chairs, knees directly over the ankles, feet planted hip-width apart. Then, she asks them to close their eyes and focus on every breath they take — feeling the breath go in, feeling the breath go out.
“Many people join us because of a physical need,” LaMonte explains. “There’s been an injury to the back or there’s pain in the neck, and a heavier form of exercise just isn’t realistic anymore.”
So instead, they turn to yoga.
She proudly recounts the story of one of her students: an 80-year-old who’s struggling with the side effects of a stroke, which include difficulty walking.
After completing a regimen of physical therapy, he joined the Tuesday class. Now, LaMonte is helping him regain confidence in balance by encouraging him to practice standing on one foot and controlling his movements by focusing, very slowly, and putting one foot in front of the other. Stretching exercises completes the routine.
“If you’ve never been exposed to it, yoga is a whole new mind-set,” LaMonte admits. “But it works.”
Pat Dineen seconds that affirmation. A resident in one of Westminster-Thurber’s independent-living apartments, she didn’t hesitate to sign up for the class on an ongoing basis.
“I went for the trial session and I felt so good afterward, I knew I had to continue,” the robust octogenarian enthuses. “Because, in addition to building strength, I can now do things a normal 80-year-old can’t.”
And that includes mastering how to breathe again. For years, Dineen struggled with the muscle weakness and shortness of breath that accompanied a diagnosis of emphysema.
“Yoga helps me remember how important exercise is to my well-being,” she says.
“And most importantly,” Dineen adds, “It’s given me a new lease on life.”
For more information about gentle exercises, visit aarp.org/health/fitness.