COLUMBIA — Four years ago, back surgery left Barbara Logsdon incapacitated. She needed a walker to go anywhere.
Then Logsdon met Mary Cruise, who teaches tai chi to seniors to improve their health and well-being. Cruise invited her to try it.
Logsdon joined a group class at Bethel Ridge Estates and began practicing the slow, repetitive martial arts moves almost every week.
One day, an acquaintance asked Logsdon: "Where's your walker?"
Logdson told her it had been shoved into a corner and was collecting dust.
Now 74, Logsdon gives credit to Cruise, 48, who owns Columbia Tai Chi, a studio for adults and children at 200 S. Old 63.
Cruise also holds seven group classes a week at a number of senior centers, including Bethel Ridge Estates, TigerPlace, the Columbia Area Senior Center and Hanover Estates.
Tai chi can be beneficial to the health of older men and women, according to a variety of studies published in the past decade. The research points to improvements in balance and mobility, less joint pain and a decline in the number of falls.
According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention one-in-three adults age 65 and older fall each year. The Boone County Health Assessment listed falls of seniors as a priority disease or condition in May 2011.
A study by the Gerontological Society of America found that a six-month tai chi program was effective in decreasing the number of falls, the risk for falling and fear of falling. It also improved functional balance and physical performance in inactive people 70 and older.
Tai chi also has been shown to ease fibromyalgia pain in seniors. A clinical trial at Tufts Medical Center in 2010 asked fibromyalgia patients to practice tai chi for 12 weeks.
Researchers found they did significantly better in measurements of pain, sleep, depression and other factors, compared to the group given only stretching exercises and wellness education.
"I have fibromyalgia, and I was told I was crazy, that it was all in my head," said Rose Woodson, a tai chi participant at the Columbia Area Senior Center.
"Three doctors told me that, so I stopped going to doctors. The more I hurt, the more I sat; the more I sat, the more I hurt. I lost all my flexibility."
She said tai chi has helped ease the pain. She still has trouble lifting her shoulder, but she works around it.
The benefits to seniors have driven a growing interest in the practice.
Michael David, president of the St. Louis T'ai Chi Ch'uan Association, said he has seen a distinct increase in the participation of older students in the past 20 years.
“We have one student who is 88 years old and has been with us for 10 years, and several others who are in their 70s,” he said.
A recent class at Bethel Ridge Estates began with participants sitting in a row of chairs.
Cruise introduced light stretching exercises, and they circled their heads and shoulders, lifted their legs and touched their toes.
Those who could then stood to execute more complicated poses.
Tai chi has helped their balance, and it has allowed for movement in body parts that had been lost through pain or surgery, Cruise said.
“My doctor told me tai chi was the best exercise, other than walking, that I could do. I just do what I can,” said Athena Hassikis, a resident at Bethel Ridge Estates. “When I can’t stand, I do what I can while sitting down.”
Cruise discovered martial arts in 2001 while her children were taking classes at Hockman's ATA. After they took lessons for several months, Cruise was able to participate in the class with her children. She earned a second-degree black belt in taekwondo three years later.
Tai chi came later, and she eventually began practicing with a master.
Cruise said she could see how tai chi integrated graceful movement and martial arts and she knew she wanted to teach the discipline. She opened Columbia Tai Chi in 2006.
“When I went to the first class, I knew I would teach,” she said. “I never would have dreamed the journey it has taken me on — of self-realization, of things you can do for your health that are easy.”
In her studio, she combines Qigong, tai chi, massage therapy and Reiki, a Japanese technique for stress reduction. She wants the community to understand that integrating these practices can be beneficial to mind and body, she said.
Qigong involves a set of breathing exercises, body postures and mental concentration that are designed to control the flow of vital energy.
“It is a very global term,” Cruise said. “Exercises build qi (life energy) to rejuvenate the body.”
Tai chi is a type of Qigong that has evolved into a routine of slow, circular, stretching movements and positions of balance.
Her tai chi and Qigong students range from young children to seniors. Some of her clients have limited mobility and use wheelchairs, she said. Using circular motions allows their joints to elongate and relax and eventually allow greater movement.
“We are just doing stuff in a chair, next thing you know their balance is better,” she said. “Even though we haven’t been practicing things standing up, when their legs are stronger, when the joints are more flexible, more open, then balance is a result."
Leslie Barnes, one of her students, calls tai chi "grounding and balancing."
"It exercises or enhances all organs and body systems and creates a relaxed, peaceful mental state while maximizing focus and control," Barnes said.
A decline in health as a person ages is inevitable, Cruise said, but she hopes her classes allow seniors to remain more independent by easing pain and gaining mobility and balance.
“When I can help someone with balance or kind of keeping an independence in their life because they can move, they are grateful to me, but I am grateful for them,” Cruise said.
“I have so much respect for those people that come to my class and do this kind of crazy stuff I teach."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.