Birdie D. Ford might be 89, but she still likes to keep it moving. Participating in tai chi classes offered by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service near her home in Oklahoma City is one way she does just that.
In fact, tai chi classes are popping up in counties across the state these days thanks to Extension’s efforts, and they are drawing the interest of Oklahomans of all ages.
“I enjoy excising with the ladies and the fellowship we have,” said Ford, who turns 90 in December. “I’m keeping moving. That’s the main thing. I want to move and not just sit around like a little old lady.”
Turns out, Ford really is not just moving, but moving better as a result of tai chi. A previously dislocated shoulder significantly hindered her range of motion. However, after weeks and months of consistently participating in the martial arts form, she is now able to raise her arm all the way up.
“I think this is really fantastic. The ladies are so nice. That keeps me going every Monday. I’ve enjoyed it, I really have,” Ford said. “I encourage people, anybody I see who wants to come, I tell them about everything.”
According to the Mayo Clinic website, tai chi is a form of martial arts that involves maneuvering through a series of slow, deliberate movements while focusing on deep breathing.
Originally developed for self-defense, it has evolved into a graceful, low-impact form of exercise, making it an ideal option for older adults looking to stay active.
The known benefits of tai chi are plentiful. Beyond helping to decrease stress anxiety and depression, it can improve everything from flexibility, balance and agility, to mood, muscle strength, energy and stamina.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest tai chi has been a boon to Oklahomans able to take advantage of the Extension program.
In 2016, Extension offered tai chi 49 times statewide, reaching 1,437 individuals.
According to program evaluations, after completing the tai chi program, more than 68 percent of participants indicated they could move without risk of injury and could perform daily living activities with minimal difficulty.
This is crucial given that falls are the leading cause of death among older adults. More than 14 percent of Oklahoma’s population is age 65 or over.
Fran Walker has been taking tai chi classes in Coal County for the past two months. While she has not had trouble with falls, she certainly wants to keep it that way. It is one of the reasons she wanted to learn tai chi.
“I decided to take it because your balance isn’t as good the older you get. I could tell a difference the first class. I think it does help with your balance,” said Walker, who participates with three friends. “It’s easy. I know there’s a couple people in my class who have to do it with a chair. But, they seem to enjoy it. I do know it’s simple and anybody can do it if they just put forth the effort.”
Kelsey Ratcliff, family and consumer sciences/4-H youth development educator in the Coal County Extension office, leads the class.
Ratcliff said she decided to bring the program to the county because of the high older adult population residing the area. So far the course has been well received.
“I’ve had people tell me that since they’ve been doing it, they feel like their balance is a little better and they’re more conscious of the steps they’re taking,” she said. “In every class we have to ask them when they sign in if they’ve had a fall since the last class. So far we’ve only had one.”
Despite the tai chi course being geared toward older adults, in rural Adair County, kids got a taste of the martial arts discipline for the first time.
“The kids loved it,” said Ashley Davis, the FCS/4-H youth development educator in Adair County, who led the class of 5th through 8th graders as part of an after school program at a local school. “They loved it because it was something different for them. A lot of them would really get into it. You could see it in their faces.”
Davis does plan to eventually offer the course to older adults in the community. In an area where there are few exercise facilities and the diabetes rate is high, she certainly recognizes the significant ways in which the program could help Adair County residents as well as all of Oklahoma.
“To them, exercise is hard core cardio and it scares people,” she said. “Tai chi is not hard core cardio or high impact. It’s important for them to realize you don’t have to start that way. Work your way to it. If this is a program that helps them work their way to a healthier self, sign me up everyday.”
Amanda Ford, FCS/4-H youth development educator for Oklahoma County Extension, agreed that tai chi is a great alternative for anyone looking for low-impact physical activity. However, there’s another aspect of the classes that is equally important.
“A lot of [participants] like coming for the social aspect that it offers. It’s a reason to get out of the house and meet new people,” she said.
Ford said they decided to offer tai chi locally because of its potential benefits for anyone, but particularly older adults.
Further, the Extension office is located in one of the unhealthiest ZIP codes in the state, where there are not a lot of fitness facilities, so the class was an opportunity to provide a free program that could bring benefit to residents.
The initial 12-week session began at the Oklahoma County Extension facility in January and drew about 20 people, including Birdie Ford. Now maintenance classes are held once a week on Mondays. Another 12-week session at that location will begin this fall.
Tai chi also is being taught at a second location in the county, in Midwest City.
“I think it brings the mental aspect and the physical aspect. It’s all around a great program for Oklahoma and especially this area of Oklahoma,” Ford said. “It’s not intimidating. Some people know they need to be active, they know they need to be doing something. But, it’s intimidating to go to a gym and get on a treadmill where there’s a bunch of other people. Here, I think, we offer something that’s laid back, but it’s a good activity.”