Tai chi simplified, for balance

Modified classes aim at reducing senior injuries,deaths caused by unintentional falls

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter



Staying active

What: Tai Chi: Moving for Better Balance.

When: 11 a.m. to noon Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Where: Touchmark at Fairway Village Health & Fitness Club, 2911 S.E. Village Loop, Vancouver.

Information: 360-433-6400.

Fitness instructors at Touchmark at Fairway Village are using tai chi to tackle the state's leading cause of injury-related hospitalizations.

In 2010, unintentional fall-related hospitalizations topped 20,000 in Washington. But fitness instructors hope a new, evidence-based class, Tai Chi: Moving for Better Balance, will reduce the number fall-related injuries and deaths among seniors.

The program is derived from the traditional Yang-style tai chi. But rather than 24 moves, the senior-focused program uses eight core moves that focus on weight shifting, body alignment and coordinated movements of arms and legs, said Kim Lehmann, director of Touchmark's Health & Fitness Club in Vancouver.

"The problem you have with tai chi is there's so many moves they can't remember them all and they get frustrated, and you really want to set them up for success," Lehmann said. "This is so simplified."

The class uses moves such as "hold the ball," "part the wild horse's mane" and "single whip." The moves are simpler than some of the more advanced tai chi moves, but they still require concentration and focus, Lehmann said. The moves provide a physical and cognitive challenge, she said.

"It really opens it up to an audience that hasn't been able to do tai chi in the past," Lehmann said.

Touchmark began offering the classes three days a week earlier this month. The class typically draws 10 to 18 seniors, some of whom have movement disorders, such as Parkinson's disease, and some who are just actively aging, Lehmann said.

Vancouver resident Dan Maxwell was quick to join the class. Maxwell, 64, has Parkinson's and works out for about two hours a day to help slow the progression of the disease. Tai chi helps him to gain better control of his body. It forces him to slow down and focus on how his body moves, he said.

"It really helps build confidence and control of your life and body," Maxwell said.

Should Maxwell lose his balance, he's more confident his body will know how to react, how to shift his weight, to prevent a fall and potential injury. He didn't have that same confidence before taking tai chi, he said.

The tai chi program has been found to not only make seniors more confident, but to reduce the risk and occurrence of falls.

During a six-month trial, a team at Oregon Research Institute found the risk for multiple falls was 55 percent lower among those who performed tai chi. In addition, researchers concluded performing Chi Tai three times per week decreased the number of falls and the fear of falling and improved functional balance and physical performance among people 70 and older.

In 2010, unintentional falls were the third-leading cause of injury-related deaths, with 823 deaths, in Washington, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

Between 2008 and 2012, more than 6,000 people were hospitalized with injuries from falls. During that same period, 252 people died from injuries caused by a fall; the large majority of those who died were 65 or older, according to the state health department.

Jane Marthaller of Ridgefield hopes taking the tai chi classes will help to prevent falls as she ages. Marthaller, 62, also plans to teach the moves to her husband, Bill, who has Parkinson's disease. His work schedule prevents him from attending the classes himself, she said.

"Once he retires, we'll be at the gym every day," Marthaller said. "It's great for both of us, and it definitely helps with the Parkinson's. Exercise helps with everything."

Tai chi also helps to reduce stress and stimulate the mind, Marthaller said.

"Anybody can benefit," she said.