Fancy some Tai Chi?
(an article by Derek Bishton in The Daily Telegraph)
"I was down in Somerset this week in the picture postcard village of Dinder for my first Tai Chi lesson.
I was there because subscriber Des Giles – a Telegraph subscriber reader for more than eight decades and still an active member of the community at the age of 91 – had written to me about the work his son-in-law Paul Hodge was involved in, running Tai Chi classes for senior citizens, and the remarkable benefits these classes were bringing to people who would otherwise not be getting much exercise.
Paul is a volunteer worker with the Tai Chi for Health charity which runs an informal network of Tai Chi classes across Somerset as far north as Bristol, and which is seeking to expand by recruiting and training three new tutors.
That’s why Des had written to me, asking for help from the Telegraph Subscriber Community Fund.
For many people – myself included before I made my trip down to the west country – Tai Chi conjures up images of martial arts, of Bruce Lee and impossibly fast hand movements and gravity-defying leaps and jumps. In short, it’s not really the kind of exercise suitable for a group of older folks in the village hall.
Paul brings me up to speed. “There are hundreds of different Tai Chi styles, which in turn derive from five classic Chinese styles that date back at least 500 years,” he tells me. “What we practice is based on the Yang style, and is primarily focused on health benefits, rather than martial arts.”
The particular type of Tai Chi taught by Paul is called Shibashi, which is made up of 18 gentle, fluid, low-impact moves designed to improve balance, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness.
“It’s a fairly simple routine, easy to learn and therefore practise at home, and it’s designed for older people who may have lots of underlying health issues.
“For example, it works extremely well for people who are wheelchair-bound or have difficulty standing up. In fact, I have taught a class where six of the folks taking part started it sitting down, and after a few weeks five of them were taking part standing up.”
I found Paul’s class immensely relaxing, although soon I could feel the muscles in my arms and shoulders aching, so I was not surprised to be told that a session burns off almost as many calories as downhill skiing.
There is a growing body of research supporting the case for Tai Chi as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for many conditions commonly associated with age, such as arthritis and high blood pressure.
In fact, as Paul reminds me, The Telegraph carried a report only a few weeks ago about how Tai Chi exercises can help prevent elderly patients suffering injuries from falls by improving balance. The study, compiled by French researchers, also suggested that not only does the exercise lower fall rates but also the severity of injuries when people do fall over.
Given that this is one of the greatest dangers (and fears) facing people as they get older, I’m beginning to see why Paul is so keen to widen the scope of Tai Chi for Health’s work.
After two Shibashi sessions, the group at Dinder village hall gather round for a traditional British cuppa. I find myself sitting next to Carolyn Legg, whose husband Richard suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Both are enthusiastic members of Paul’s class.
“It’s added a new dimension to our lives,” said Carolyn. “It gives me a sense of valuing my body again, and it has helped Richard enormously. Even his Consultant has remarked on it.”
At the moment, around 400 people in Somerset benefit from the charity’s classes which are run by 28 volunteer tutors. The Community Fund grant will enable a significant expansion of this work with up to another 60 people benefiting on a weekly basis.
On behalf of The Telegraph I’m pleased to be able to make this possible, and provide a lasting legacy that will help improve the health, fitness and general wellbeing of so many people in Somerset."