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Published on October 21, 2015

Physical therapy for older adults, Chinese stylePhysical therapy for older adults, Chinese style

When the 92-year-old woman arrived, she was unsteady on her feet and totally dependent on a walker. Yet physical therapist Lauren Wedam didn’t flinch. She warmly welcomed her to the Tai Chi class.

“At first, she required a chair to lean on, and she didn’t have nearly the stamina for the one-hour class,” recalled Wedam, who works at Cape Cod Healthcare’s Oppenheim Medical Center in Chatham. “She wasn’t able to stand for more than 10 minutes at a time.”

Eight weeks later, the transformation was dramatic. The nonagenarian was able to stand for her warmups for a full 15 minutes. The walker was nowhere in sight. Only once or twice during the entire Tai Chi session did she have to reach out and hold onto a chair with one hand.

“Now, she walks only with a cane, and that’s only some of the time. There is a huge difference in her life,” Wedam said .

The ancient Chinese apparently had it right.

Wedam’s experiences teaching older Cape Codders is supported by new research that Tai Chi’s combination of deep breathing, gentle movements and relaxation can improve physical performance and enhance the quality of life for older people who suffer from osteoarthritis, heart failure and COPD.

Studies show that Tai Chi also can reduce the risk of falls among older adults who are at increased risks.

[Join Lauren M. Wedam, PT, DPT, CEEAA Fridays (June 9 – September 1, 2017) from 8:00am – 9:00am at the Cape Cod National Seashore Salt Pond Visitor’s Center for FREE Tai Chi classes. No registration required, simply show up and enjoy! Learn more about the Healthy Parks, Healthy People Program, here.]

In the latest study, researchers from the Universities of British Columbia and Toronto, analyzed data from 24 randomized studies, involving 1,594 adults mostly in their 60s and 70s who had one or more of four chronic conditions. Half the participants practiced Tai chi two to three times a week for 12 weeks; the other half either did other exercises or were idle.

The study found that those practicing Tai Chi all showed improvement in physical performance tests, including muscle strength, compared to non-practitioners. Those with osteoarthritis reported less pain and stiffness; those with COPD (congestive pulmonary obstructive disease) had less instances of severe shortness of breath.

“Because Tai Chi is so gentle, it is excellent for those with arthritis who have difficulty with exercises that require squatting and lunging,” said Wedam. “I teach what is called the Sun style, which emphasizes smooth, flowing movements that omit more physically vigorous crouching and leaping of some other styles.”

Wedam often uses these techniques for her physical therapy patients, many of whom suffer from osteoporosis and waning bone strength. “They don’t actually know they are doing Tai Chi at the time. When, they learn this, they often sign up for classes, which she currently teaches at the Orleans Senior Center.

“In order to build bone, you need to have some sort of tensile force on the bones. Walking and moving in space, which you do with Tai Chi, is an excellent therapy,” she explained. “What makes people feel better is the increase of blood flow to their bones.”

Patients with COPD benefit from what Wedam calls mindful breathing with Tai Chi. “At the same time, you have to be very careful. Any exercise for COPD sufferers should be supervised and monitored,” she cautioned.

With Tai Chi, expect to feel pretty awkward at first. Even if you were a world-class ballet dancer, you wouldn’t immediately be able to do Tai Chi as well as someone who has taught and practiced it for years.

“Like most exercise, you can’t just hop into Tai Chi. When I was learning it, my back hurt and I felt other aches. But once you learn how to complete your forms and use good posture and mechanics, you’ll feel wonderful,” Wedam said.