Aging Well: Doctor shares tai chi experience, benefits

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Integrative health

Dr. Pam Kircher, national speaker on the integration of complementary and conventional medicine, will discuss the health benefits of tai chi from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Olympian Hall in Howelsen Lodge. The event will include a Q-and-A session and demonstration of the Tai Chi for Health program. Tea and refreshments will be available. There is no cost to attend.

The event is sponsored by the Aging Well program of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association and Integrated Health at Yampa Valley Medical Center. For more information, call 970-871-7676. For more information about Kircher, visit www.pamkircher.co...

Tai Chi for Health

The Aging Well program offers ongoing and/or specialty Tai Chi for Health classes in Craig, Steamboat Springs, Hayden, Oak Creek and Yampa. All ability levels are welcome. For more information, call 970-871-7676 or visit www.nwcovna.org (click on “Services,” then “Wellness and Aging Services”).

Reasons to try tai chi

  1. It’s affordable: Classes are offered for a reasonable fee or suggested donation. No special clothing or equipment is needed.
  2. It’s warm: Classes offer safe, indoor exercise options during a wet and chilly spring.
  3. It’s welcoming: Everyone is there to get healthy.
  4. It’s strengthening: Movements improve flexibility, balance and muscle strength.
  5. It’s grounding: Meditative element encourages relaxation and positive mindset.
  6. It’s safe: It was developed to accommodate and address common physical limitations.
  7. It’s convenient: Once you learn the routines, you can practice anywhere.
  8. It’s different: Nature of movements make it unlike most exercise in U.S.
  9. It’s fun: Friendships form as participants learn together.
  10. It’s challenging: Tai chi is a lifelong practice toward deep mind-body connection.

It was only a matter of time before tai chi played a starring role in Pam Kircher’s life.

A family physician, Kircher has spent much of her career exploring complementary medicine, such as herbal remedies, acupuncture and massage, that contribute to health and wellness.

Kircher witnessed the peace and balance others achieved through tai chi and knew it was something she wanted to try, but her busy schedule conflicted with her initial efforts to learn.

Then, while working at Mercy Medical Center in Durango, Kircher had the opportunity to attend a weekend tai chi workshop with Dr. Paul Lam, an Australian doctor who developed a modified tai chi program for people with arthritis, balance problems and other health challenges.

Kircher, who was experiencing pain and stiffness from a double knee surgery, began practicing Lam’s program — Tai Chi for Health — regularly. She felt relief after only two weeks.

“I fell in love with it and have done tai chi ever since,” she said.

About 10 years ago, Kircher became certified to teach Tai Chi for Health. Later she became a “master trainer” for instructors, helping add to the large and continually growing network of Tai Chi for Health programs across the world.

Kircher will speak about the health benefits of tai chi and supporting scientific research Wednesday evening at Olympian Hall in Howelsen Lodge in Steamboat Springs. Attendees are encouraged to bring questions and participate in a short Tai Chi for Health demonstration.

Tai chi combines deep breathing and mental concentration with slow, fluid movements. Originally developed as a martial art, there are various styles of tai chi, some dating back to ancient China.

One of the biggest advantages of tai chi is its adaptability. Traditional forms can present significant challenge with spins, kicks, squats and bends, as students progress and apply movements to martial arts applications.

Tai chi also can provide a very gentle and safe form of exercise for older adults and people with chronic conditions. It is low impact and uses many muscles, helping improve flexibility, muscle strength and balance.

Kircher credits Lam and his Tai Chi for Health program — which includes classes designed specifically for individuals with osteoporosis and diabetes — for making tai chi and its benefits accessible to people unable to do traditional forms.

She recommends individuals who are 50 or older, or coping with a physical condition or limitation, to start with a modified tai chi program such as Tai Chi for Health.

“Dr. Lam’s forms, while specifically designed to help issues related to disease processes, can be used to improve anyone’s health,” Kircher said.

Tai chi studies

Tai Chi for Health, though modified, challenges participants to improve their form while learning new movements. Practitioners interested in progressing further can take advantage of traditional tai chi classes such as those offered at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat.

Having experienced benefits herself, Kircher didn’t need to be convinced of tai chi’s positive effect on health. Research suggesting tai chi helps prevent falls among older adults is what inspired her to take the step from student to teacher.

This research includes the Central Sydney Tai Chi Trails, a 2006 study of more than 700 relatively healthy older adults living in assisted living facilities and taking one tai chi class per week.

The study found that after 16 weeks, the group doing tai chi had 70 percent fewer falls than a control group not doing tai chi.

“That was the biggest reason I started teaching,” she said.

Kircher has shaped her medical career around integrating complementary medicine with conventional medicine to enhance wellness and a person’s awareness of their mind, body and spirit.

“Movement arts, tai chi in particular, really help us see how our minds influence our bodies and how our bodies influence our minds, bringing us more into a state of wholeness,” she said.

The meditative aspect of tai chi, which helps focus the mind and promotes relaxation, is what draws many people to the exercise. Although it tends to have a stigma as an “older person’s exercise,” tai chi’s slow, thoughtful nature can be particularly helpful to younger practitioners.

“Tai chi is a great stress reducer,” Kircher said. “That of course is the big problem with being young — life is coming at you really fast.”

Tai chi has something to offer everyone, even those who are active and physically fit. Unlike many sports, which strengthen external muscles, tai chi is focused on core strength.

Good core strength and better body awareness will help improve any athlete’s game, Kircher said.

And while regular exercise can help keep us toned and trim, it seems there’s always room for improving our daily outlook and state of mind.

“Well-being of the mind is being at peace while still recognizing that life has its ups and downs,” Kircher said. “It’s about dealing with issues with a sense of balance.”

Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at tmanzanares@nwcovna.org. Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults 50 and older. For more information, visit www.agingwelltoday.com or call 970-871-7606.

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