A new exercise pilot program aimed at preventing falls in the elderly is being tested in Medford and at a handful of other YMCAs nationwide. The class, "Tai Chi Moving for Better Balance," was developed by Dr. Fuzhong Li of the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene.
Dr. Li's recently published study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that tai chi improves postural stability in the elderly suffering from Parkinson's disease. Fall prevention is critical for longevity, as falls often lead to hip fractures, and one out of five hip-fracture patients die within a year of their injury, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
What: Tai Chi Moving for Better Balance
Where: Rogue Valley Family YMCA, 522 W. 6th St., Medford
When: 10 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through April 3
Cost: Free for members. Nonmembers should call the YMCA at 541-772-6295
"Tai chi is taught differently at every Y where it is offered; there is no one standard program," says Barbara Meredith, who teaches the new tai chi program at the Rogue Valley Family YMCA in Medford.
Meredith, 60, is a retired kindergarten teacher from Central Point. Shortly after retiring, she picked up tai chi and found immediate benefits in her own life.
"It's the best thing I've ever done," says Meredith. "I've become strong and flexible."
The hour-long class is not composed of traditional moves, says Meredith. Rather, "it's exercise and prevention based on the Yang form style promoted by the Chinese government."
Many of the movements in the new class have practical applications.
"The movements in this class all mimic things you do in life, like picking up a bag of groceries," says Meredith.
The classes meet Tuesday and Thursday mornings at the Y from 8:45 to 9:30 and 10 to 11. Another class is offered through the Y but held at the Medford Congregational Church of Christ on Jackson Street from 3 to 4 p.m. Monday and Thursday. These pilot classes are currently offered to YMCA members only, but the Y is offering special temporary memberships for people who want to take the class.
After the pilot class is finished in early April, the Medford YMCA will continue it indefinitely on Tuesday and Thursday from 10 to 11 a.m.
On a recent Tuesday, six women and one man, most between 60 and 80, suited up for class.
A traditional step-roll "tai chi walk" is used for a warm-up: Step at 10 o'clock, roll an imaginary ball between your arms, step with the other foot at 2 o'clock, roll the ball. Repeat.
During the first few attempts, many participants resemble marionettes. After a few minutes, they flow like dancers, even the first-timers.
Class members then practice eight movements in a fixed routine. Unlike a traditional tai chi class, these movements are practiced separately, not in a long sequence. This makes it easier to jump in to a class if you've missed the previous one.
The Blocking Game is a favorite of class members. The entire class circles up. Partners approach each other from opposite sides using the slow tai chi walk, and one stops to block the other. The passer must avoid the blocker and move past, still using the tai chi walk, without touching the blocker.
"This helps you move out of the way, it strengthens the ankles," Meredith explains. "When you're at the mall and someone steps in front of you, you need to be able to react quickly."
Even after three sessions, one class member already is benefiting.
"My balance is improving," says Marianne Key, 75, a Medford resident. "I first did tai chi five years ago but I stopped. My balance began to get bad again."
The change in balance is something Key notices in her everyday life.
"I notice it most when I put on my pants. I get wobbly," Key explains.
Fellow Medford resident Karen Beck hopes this tai chi class will help her adjust following her recent knee-replacement surgery.
"I have two new knees," says Beck. "During physical therapy I had vertigo while standing on one leg. I'm hoping this (class) will help."
Parkinson's patient Gary Beamer heard about Dr. Li's study using tai chi on Parkinson's patients and decided to give this class a try.
"With Parkinson's you tend to stiffen up," says Beamer, a Talent resident. "Tai chi helps you stay loose."
For Beamer, 76, loose equals less likely to fall.
Beamer says he has tried several forms of exercise and he likes how he feels while doing tai chi.
"What I'm hoping to get out of this class," Beamer admits, "is longevity."
For more information on Dr. Li's study, see www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1107911
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.