Area residents have the opportunity to increase their health by attending the Tai Chi: Moving for Better Balance series taking place in Hulbert three days a week.

Oklahoma Healthy Aging Initiative hosts the free classes Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Hulbert Senior Citizen Center, 401 E. Main St., and Wednesdays in the Hulbert Community Library, 210 N. Broadway. All classes start at 9:30 a.m., and last an hour.

"The main purpose is to improve their balance. It improves their ability to walk and breathe," said Sharon Elder, education specialist with the Northeast Center of Healthy Aging.

Elder travels this district of 19 counties and leads the classes. While it was developed for adults aged 60 and older who can walk easily with or without assistive devices, Elder encourages everyone to try it.

"They can come even if they feel they have a disability or feel they can't do it," she said. "We've had people who've had strokes and couldn't move one side of their body. For people recovering from knee or hip surgery, their physical therapists are happy they are improving so much by doing this."

According to the OHAI, about one in three adults ages 65 years and older fall each year, and 20-30 percent of those suffer moderate to severe injuries, such as cuts, hip fractures and head traumas.

"If they have had injuries, we teach them how to take steps and stand so it's not injuring them more," said Elder.

Reta Myers, 82, said she helped get the program at the Hulbert Senior Citizens Center - mainly because she wanted to take tai chi, even though she had not done it before.

"I needed help with my balance. At 82, you get that way. I was sore on my shoulders and I needed help straightening up my back," said Myers. "I loved it."

Myers said she was thrilled with the turnout Tuesday. While 19 people have signed up, 14 showed for the first day. Attendance was lower at the Hulbert library, but some of the attendees had been at the center the previous day.

Cathy Johnson attended the OHAI tai chi classes last time they were held in Hulbert and Tahlequah. She has been to the two this week in Hulbert and is happy it is being offered again. The program helped her breathe better, and her pulmonologist remarked that her lungs were a lot clearer.

"It's really helped me out with breathing and I can balance better. I can catch myself if I trip on a mat or something now," said Johnson. "I used to every two hours have to lift my legs up because they were swollen. Now I can go four or more hours."

Elder said part of the activity is learning how to breathe.

"We teach them how to fill their lungs instead of just the top," she said. "Breaths are really good at getting you focused."

All participants are given a short pre-assessment to check how good their balance is. At the end of the series, they will be given a post-assessment to see if there has been improvement.

Pam Davis is assistant manager of the Hulbert library, and she only did 20 minutes of tai chi the last time it was held there, but it helped. She had a headache that day due to a knot in her neck, and doing tai chi worked that out.

On Wednesday, Davis did her pre-assessment and participated in the class. She has volunteered to get trained so the program can continue after Elder's sessions are over.

"I will be tested and certified. I'm looking forward to it," said Davis. "It moves your energy and circulates the blood."

Each class starts with a couple of warm-up movements. Feet are to be hip-width apart with feet forward. Elder said all steps should be with the heel first, and then the foot is flattened.

"It makes a difference with stability," said Elder. "And don't lock your knees. Keep your shoulders back. Do not step until you have shifted your full body weight."

The program uses eight tai chi positions, and each week, participants will learn a new one and build on the previous ones. Some of them include Hold the Ball, Part the Wild Horse's Mane, Single Whip, and Grasp the Peacock's Tail.

"These are the original titles from the ancient time tai chi was developed. They have been modified a bit," said Elder. "Coordination will come with practice. There's something about the second week; it starts to kick in."

The movements can be done standing or sitting, or a combination of both.

"Modify it to do what you can do. With practice, you will notice that your arm goes up further or you can bend more," said Elder. "Everything is very slow and methodical. We don't want to be jerky because that's when we hurt ourselves."

Participants are encouraged to take water breaks during the sessions, and then to drink 8-16 ounces of water in the following one or two hours.

"It's very important to keep yourself hydrated. It will flush out the toxins released from the joints," said Elder.

Research on Tai Chi: Moving for Better Balance has been conducted since 2004, according to the State Department of Health website. Health benefits from the program include: reduced blood pressure; improved muscular strength; balance and postural control; improving sleep quality; reduced depression; reduced fall risk by as much as 55 percent; enhanced mental well-being; and improved overall quality of life.

The Tai Chi: Moving for Better Balance program will return to Tahlequah after the first of the year, according to Elder.

"We try to get to an area every 18 months," she said. "Watch the newspaper for the dates."

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