Tai chi’s slow rhythms make it a good low-impact exercise for anyone, but especially for older adults dealing with balance and joint problems.

“It decreases the pain and helps improve your movement, your flexibility, your range of motion, and it also improves your balance,” said Linda Coogan, a registered nurse and certified Tai chi instructor. “It has been proven to decrease falls. As we get older, when we start falling, it’s like this downward spiral.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Coogan taught a modified form of Tai chi in local senior centers. But at a time when older adults are advised to stay home and senior centers are closed because of COVID-19, she had to find a new way to teach her classes.

Coogan had used the video conferencing platform Zoom for meetings and convinced the Southern Alabama Regional Council on Aging (SARCOA) to move the Tai chi program to on online format. Zoom allows her to watch her students while they follow the movements. And she’s been surprised by how far students have come since the classes started in May as well as how willing they were to use the technology.

“I’m a baby boomer myself and the baby boomers are a lot more tech-savvy than we give them credit for,” Coogan said.

Under Alabama’s public health order, most recently amended May 21, senior centers are still closed for activities.

SARCOA sponsors the Tai chi classes with money from a federal grant. There is no cost to participate. However, you must be 60 years of age and you must complete the registration form on SARCOA’s website: https://sarcoa.org/event/online-tai-chi-classes-offered/. Participants will need an internet connection and a computer with camera and sound. Find more information at sarcoa.org or call 334-793-6843.

The online Tai chi classes are offered Tuesday through Friday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Participants are asked to take two classes a week to get the full benefit.

Classes will be offered until Sept. 30.

The Tai chi movements are designed for those with poor balance or joint problems. Students can even start in a seated position until they feel more comfortable doing the movements. Rather than just posting a video, Zoom allows interaction that is important between instructor and student, Coogan said.

“One, it’s important that I’m able to see and make sure that they’re not doing something that they could harm themselves,” she said. “Two, everybody getting to see each other is a form of social connection. We stop at the end every day and have a moment to just chat with each other.”

The biggest challenge was making sure the students had access to the internet and could learn to use the Zoom platform. Coogan will actually get on the phone to talk students through their initial set up if need.

“Some people use their phones, but most everybody wants to put it on a bigger screen so they can see me, and I hook up to a big screen so I can put all the participants on there,” she said.

Coogan said she is proof of the benefits of Tai chi. She has rheumatoid arthritis as well as a thyroid disorder. Before she started Tai chi, her balance and range of motion was terrible and she was taking a “shoe box full of meds.” Today, she only takes her thyroid pill and her balance is just fine.

The exertion level in this form of Tai chi is the equivalent of a slow-paced walk, Coogan said.

“The way that we move is modified so that we are getting the most benefit and we’re moving our joints and building those core stabilizer muscles that are supporting our joints,” she said. “So if we have arthritis, we can build the muscles that are supporting those joints so the joints don’t have to work so hard.”

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