Lori Farris was willing to try just about anything to better control her high blood pressure, a condition that made her severely ill for several months.
So, when her doctor recommended tai chi, a martial arts form known for enhancing physical and mental well-being, she readily agreed to try it.
These days, Farris is a regular in the tai chi class offered by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service's Oklahoma County office.
"In the process of helping me control my blood pressure better, it's actually given me better muscle tone and balance and stronger ankles, which I didn't know my ankles were not that strong," Farris said. "That's been a very pleasant surprise, and it makes you feel better."
Tai chi 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. According to the Mayo Clinic website, beyond helping to decrease stress, anxiety and depression, it can improve everything from flexibility, balance and agility, to mood, muscle strength, energy and stamina.
Tai chi is part of a robust slate of Family and Consumer Sciences Extension programming in Oklahoma State University's Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, which is aimed at helping Oklahoma's families, youth and individuals grow in safe and healthy ways by focusing on wellness and other issues that affect their daily lives.
LaDonna Hines, director of Oklahoma County Extension, said offering the tai chi class was an opportunity to provide a free program that could help residents of all ages, and especially older adults.
The county Extension office also is located in one of the unhealthiest ZIP codes in the state, where there is a shortage of fitness facilities.
"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," Hines 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."
An initial 12-week session in January 2017 has evolved into once-a-week maintenance classes led by two Oklahoma County Extension Master Wellness volunteers.
"Anybody can do it. It's very simple," said Dorothy Duhme, 85, who has been taking the class since it began. "I'm pretty active and I really want to keep moving because I'm afraid if I stop I won't be able to move. So, tai chi has helped me do the other things I want to do. It's been great. My balance is pretty good and I think it's gotten even better with tai chi."
Birdie D. Ford, 90, is another regular who has benefitted from the low-impact activity.
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'm keeping moving. That's the main thing. I want to move and not just sit around like a little old lady," she said. "I think this is really fantastic. The ladies are so nice. That keeps me going every Monday. I've enjoyed it, I really have."
There is plenty of evidence to suggest tai chi has been a boon to Oklahomans able to take advantage of the exercise form through Extension in Oklahoma County as well as in other counties across the state.
According to a small sample of voluntary 2017 program evaluations, after completing the tai chi program, 95 percent of participants said they believe tai chi has helped them function better during daily activities, 84 percent said they are less afraid of falling because of tai chi and 92 percent said they believe practicing tai chi has improved their balance.
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.
Beyond helping participants remain physically active, though, the class serves another, equally important role.
"We have become a little community," Farris said.
Ford agreed class participants have become friends.
"I enjoy exercising with the ladies and the fellowship we have. I encourage people, anybody I see who wants to come, I tell them about everything," she said.
Like others in the class, Duhme is not shy about encouraging others to try tai chi.
"I recommend it to all my friends," she said. "We come dressed very comfortably and it's no big deal. It doesn't last all that long. It's not like you're doing a 2-hour workout. In fact, the first time I did it I thought, 'This is all there is? This is all you have to do?' My daughter said it was helping, so keep going, so I did."
- By Leilana McKindra