A new evidence-based class aimed at improving arthritis and preventing falls for seniors is gaining popularity in Tooele County.
The class, titled “Tai Chi for Arthritis and Fall Prevention,” was developed by Dr. Paul Lam of the Tai Chi for Health Institute. The eight-week program is based on the Sun style of tai chi, and includes 12 forms of movement designed to build muscle strength and improve balance, said Amy Bate, health promotion coordinator and public information officer for the Tooele County Health Department.
Bate, along with one other health department employee, became certified as instructors for the class in April after the Utah Department of Health offered funding for Tooele County to start the class.
“We got a small amount of funding and training to bring it to our community,” Bate said. “It’s for people suffering from arthritis and helps in fall prevention. It’s pretty cool because one in four Americans 65 and older fall each year — it’s the leading cause of injury, hospitalization and death. This a way for people 65 and older to take control of their health by becoming stronger and more aware of their balance.”
More than 500 medical studies on tai chi have shown the exercise can have a variety of health benefits, according to a video published by the Tai Chi for Health Institute.
“Understanding and incorporating the tai chi principles is what makes tai chi so effective,” program developer Lam says in the video. “Tai chi improves many aspects of health, from calming the mind to reducing high blood pressure, improving immunity, improving balance, and prevent falls; relieving arthritis pain, helping people with heart conditions and diabetes, and much more.”
A recent study published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity in 2016 seems to support Lam’s claims. Out of 343 study participants — the average age of whom was 66 years — 83 percent showed significant improvement in balance after eight weeks of participating in tai chi classes. At the same time, participants reported less pain, fatigue, and stiffness. After a year of tai chi, the participants still felt the same benefits. When the study concluded, 30 percent of participants chose to continue doing tai chi.
On a local level, Tooele resident Floyd Michael Lewis has enjoyed his experience in the senior centers’ tai chi classes. He was at the very first class on May 8, and has completed the eight-week course twice now.
“I believe tai chi keeps me active,” he said. “Also, tai chi has some defensive moves in it. … If somebody were to attack you, there’s certain things you can do that we do very slowly in tai chi. It’s a type of karate, I believe, but the movements are very deliberate.”
Learning the deliberate movements has been Lewis’ favorite part of the classes, and the aspect he feels helps him the most.
“I like the regimentation of it, and learning to breathe properly because I have a hard time breathing sometimes because I’m old and have other medical problems that make it a little harder for me,” he said. “I enjoy the regimentation of it and the slowness of it. … To me, it’s very relaxing and very deliberate. … You’re relaxed because you’re doing it so slow; it’s a type of meditation because your mind is centered on one thing.”
In addition to doing tai chi at the Tooele Senior Center, Lewis bought a set of DVDs from the Tai Chi for Health Institute so that he can practice at home. In addition to staying active and learning to breathe properly, one of the major health benefits he’s noticed is lower blood pressure.
Lewis isn’t the only one enjoying the tai chi classes, according to Kristen Bolinder, Tooele Senior Center activities specialist and the other tai chi instructor in the county.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it’s been so popular,” she said. “I didn’t know people in our community even knew what it was. … This has been a wonderful response; the first class had seating for 25 people and it was standing room only. A lot of people have tried it, and a lot have stuck with it.”
According to Tooele County’s funding contract with the state health department, Bolinder and Bate were only required to teach two classes in the community. But since becoming certified instructors in April, they’ve already taught the full course twice at the Tooele Senior Center, and are currently teaching it again in Grantsville.
“It’s been really successful,” Bate said. “We’ve had 65 participants try the class at least once. … Everybody that takes it loves it; it’s really slow and gentle movements that anyone can do, you can even do them while seated, and there are so many benefits. It makes your whole mind, body, and spirit feel better.”
She added, “It’s been so wildly popular that … we’ll probably set up a fourth or fifth (course).”
Each week, class members attend two one-hour classes. The current class meets at the Grantsville Senior Center on Mondays from 10 to 11 a.m. and Fridays from 9 to 10 a.m. In a typical class, the instructors lead the participants through a warm-up exercise, teach a new tai chi form, practice forms that were already learned, and finish with a cooldown.
Each form builds on the previous ones, ultimately resembling a dance. The class structure is nice because if people ever have to miss a class, they don’t fall far behind, Bolinder said.
“Even if people miss one or two sessions, (we) always go back to show what the movement from the previous class was,” she said. “It’s very flexible for their schedules, too — lots of people have very busy lives, and even if they can only come once a week, they can still keep up.”
For Bolinder, the most rewarding — and the most challenging — part of doing tai chi is learning to slow down.
“We rush, rush, rush so much in our society that to do something where the … purpose is to move slowly and deliberately and to breathe, it’s been really good,” Bolinder said. “I miss it when we don’t do it, and the students all miss it. It’s just nice to slow down and breathe and just do some mindful movement. It’s really quite a beautiful routine.”
Bolinder and Bate agreed that one of the best aspects of tai chi for seniors is that people of all abilities can do it. Students can practice while sitting as well as standing. They have one student who does the exercises from her wheelchair. In addition, if someone struggles to do a particular form, they can choose to skip it and focus on the other forms.
“They’ve found benefits in all (the forms), so if a person finds one form that’s really relaxing for them, and just do that, they’ll still get the benefits,” Bate said. “It’s sometimes called meditation in motion; it’s really good for the mind to remember the forms, focus on breathing, and clear your mind.”
As the classes have progressed, Bolinder has noticed positive changes in her tai chi students.
“The cause of falls in seniors is usually muscle weakness, balance and lack of confidence, and this helps to improve all of those,” she said. “Tai chi is like a constant movement, a very flowing movement, … like a martial art dance, and it’s very soothing. The resistance comes from the slowness and deliberate movements of it. It’s really calming, and it really does increase their confidence.”
Between the class’ popularity and its health benefits, Bolinder and Bate don’t intend to stop teaching tai chi anytime soon. The next class in Tooele will most likely start next March. Each new class will be announced on the Tooele County Health Department website, in the department newsletter, on social media, in the Transcript Bulletin, and through flyers around the community.
Although the state funding for the program only goes through next June, Bate is hopeful the funding will be renewed due to the class’ popularity. Even if it’s not, the county could use other funds it sets aside for senior center activities, she said.
“It’s really not an expensive program. It’s free to participants, and the other instructor (Bolinder) and I have already had our training, so it’s (the only cost is) really just our time — two hours a week — and promotion of the program, but it’s been so popular it’s been promoting itself,” Bate said.
In terms of long-term sustainability, the county is considering the possibility of training someone in the community to act as a volunteer instructor, she added.
Bate and Bolinder are also considering adding a more advanced tai chi class. So far, they’ve only taught part one of Lam’s “Tai Chi for Arthritis and Fall Prevention” program.
“We’ve been trained in tai chi part two, but right now … we’re just gauging the participation level and the students’ level of advancement,” Bate said. “Part two is more difficult, and when teaching the classes, people have to kind of build up to that level. It’s still very new for everyone, everyone is still in the beginner stage, but when we get more people in the advanced stage, we’ll consider teaching part two.”
As for Lewis, he’s looking forward to doing the class a third time — whenever that may be.
“I appreciate the ladies that recommended me (to the program); they’re very good senseis,” he said. “When they start it again, I’ll do it again, because I enjoy it.”