From China to the Midcoast, Tai Chi Embraced by the Aging Community
Older practitioners feeling the benefits of non-impact exercise —
Tai Chi is “not much of a spectator sport” for anyone observing its slow, purposeful movements, says Mike Shunney. “You won’t have 30,000 people in a stadium watching,” he joked. Yet far more practitioners take part in the centuries-old martial art, which health experts say has a multitude of health benefits, especially for older people.
At Shunney’s Inner Works Center for Taijiquan & Qigong Studies in Rockland, three-quarters of the 72 Tai Chi students are 55 or older. In a recent morning session, five participants over the age of 60 touted various benefits of the slow-motion movements designed to strengthen and focus their mental powers as well as their bodies.
“I know it’s a good thing for older folks,” Paul Velleman said. “I wanted to start before I started feeling like an older person.”
The 69-year-old Camden resident enjoys strength conditioning, but also the mental exercise of learning and remembering the combination of maneuvers. “I feel like there’s always progress to be made,” Velleman said, adding that practicing Tai Chi at home is a good fit for someone who is no longer working. “When you’ve retired … it’s nice to feel you’re not stagnant.”
Lynne Wildnauer, 64, of Lincolnville underwent knee replacements and found Tai Chi a good way to rehabilitate. “I feel that this has helped a lot with that strengthening around the knee area,” she said.
“It’s mindful and purposeful movement,” Shunney says. “Everything we do is slow, gentle, circular, non-impact movements.”
Taijiquan, commonly known as Tai Chi, began as a Chinese martial art form created by a Taoist monk around 1279. The modern form has an estimated 250 million practitioners worldwide, including 2 million Americans.
Many of the movements and postures are named for animals and simple actions: Brush Right Knee, Embrace Tiger, Turn to Mountain, Grasp Sparrow Tail, White Crane Spreads Wings, Repulse Monkey.
A report by the Mayo Clinic called Tai Chi “a graceful form of exercise that’s now used for stress reduction and a variety of other health conditions” and noted that its benefits include decreased stress, anxiety and depression; improvement in flexibility, balance, muscle strength and agility; and boosted energy and stamina.
“Tai Chi is low impact and puts minimal stress on muscles and joints, making it generally safe for all ages and fitness levels,” the report stated. “In fact, because Tai Chi is a low-impact exercise, it may be especially suitable if you’re an older adult who otherwise may not exercise.”
Numerous medical and scientific papers discuss the health rewards. A Harvard Medical School report stated, “There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice … has value in treating or preventing many health problems.” The Columbia University Department of Rehabilitation and Regenerative Medicine reported Tai Chi “may be particularly well suited for older adults, but it’s a beneficial exercise for people of all ages.” The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation wrote, “To improve balance and coordination, as well as combat joint stiffness and increase calmness and awareness, Tai Chi is an ideal choice.”
There are countless Tai Chi classes offered throughout the midcoast. John Jenkins conducts a course called, “Tai-Chi-Balance/Jenkins Technique,” which has been used by retirement communities including Bartlett Woods in Rockland and Camden’s Quarry Hill. The program offers options for varying ages and abilities. “This runs the gamut of balance and back relief for fishermen and gardeners to anger dissipation management for people suffering from the adverse effects of stress,” Jenkins said.
Doug Johnstone, who operates the Johnstone Chiropractic Center in Camden, teaches Tai Chi twice weekly as a “passion” he has engaged in for years. Johnstone said the classes attract six to 10 people per session and more than half of those are over 55, including men and women up to 88 years old.
The benefits for older people are numerous, Johnstone said, including better sleep and flexibility. “It’s pretty universal that people involved with Tai Chi improve their balance,” he said, noting that avoiding falls is a primary health concern for the aging community. “It’s just overall well-being for mind and body.”
Dean Felton of Rockland began Tai Chi study more than two years ago, intrigued as to whether the training could alleviate a host of medical problems including arthritis and “chronic heart failure.” A tall man, the 74-year-old said the exercises have improved his balance and coordination, as well as making him calmer and better attuned to his surroundings.
“I think from a mental and physical point of view… it’s very meditative,” Felton said. “It enhances those awareness issues a lot.”
Approaching his 80th birthday, Pete Schiot of Thomaston attends three classes per week and considers Tai Chi to be far more than unhurried exercises. “I would like to think of my Tai Chi experience as a highly athletic endeavor done in a peaceful manner and not just a flexibility class for seniors,” he said.
Jennifer Fortin agreed. The health and wellness programs manager for Spectrum Generations taught one class in which student ages ranged between 24 and 92. “Everybody’s there for something different,” she said.
Spectrum’s “Tai Chi for Health and Balance” course offered throughout the state — including at Central Lincoln County YMCA in Damariscotta — employs an “evidence-based” model focusing on eight principal movements.
“The program is geared toward helping prevent falls and relieving pain for people with arthritis,” she said, explaining the exercises improve mobility and tone muscles used in everyday activities such as walking on snowy sidewalks and reaching for seat belts. “Through these movements they’re able to do a lot more.”
Progress can be tracked simply by observing students over time, according Fortin, who said some who began classes in chairs were up on their feet exercising by the end of the 16-session course.
A certified fitness instructor, Fortin said Tai Chi offers benefits for everyone involved, including those leading the groups. “It’s one of the best classes to facilitate because no matter what kind of day you’re having, it really does center you,” she said.