URI students improve health of Providence elderly with Tai Chi

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Kinesiology professor Matt Delmonico conducts study

KINGSTON, R.I., Feb. 6, 2015 – A group of overweight elderly women in Providence can get around better, thanks to University of Rhode Island students who introduced them to an ancient Chinese exercise: Tai Chi.

Twenty-six women at the St. Martin De Porres Senior Center in Providence participated in the three-month project, conducted by URI faculty and students studying exercise science, nutrition and communicative disorders.

“The major improvement was in mobility,” says Matt Delmonico, a kinesiology professor at URI who co-wrote a research article about the program, published in December in the Journal of Aging Research. “The women improved how well they could get out of their chair and walk, and that was very meaningful in relation to their disability risk.”

It’s no secret that obesity is a major health threat in the United States. Obesity has doubled in the last decade, with studies showing that 35 percent of adults over 65 are obese.

Sadly, studies also show that obesity rates are higher for women than men, with the highest rates among African American and Hispanic women. The health issues are staggering: chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease, as well as loss of muscle mass, known as sarcopenia.

Weight loss can combat the weight problem, but so can exercise like Tai Chi, an appealing form of activity to older adults because it is safe and puts minimal stress on muscles and joints. It’s a series of slow movements, with each posture flowing into the other.

The women at the center took Tai Chi classes three times a week, using the 24-movement Yang style. Each session lasted 45 minutes, which included a five-minute cool-down period. As part of the study, the women also did “resistance exercise” with elastic tubing and learned about the importance of a nutritious diet to lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

Although the women, all 50 to 80 years old, did not make significant changes in their diets, Delmonico was heartened by their increased mobility after three months.

The students used something called the chair-sit-and-reach test to measure flexibility. The women sat on the edge of a chair with one knee bent and the other knee extended, while reaching to their toes. The score was the number of centimeters short of reaching their toes (negative number) or beyond their toes (positive number).

To measure physical mobility, the team used the timed-up-and-go test, or TUG. In this test, the women stood up from a chair and walked to a cone eight feet away and then returned and sat back down. Delmonico says the women showed good improvement on this test after three months.

“The major finding of the study was that significant improvements were observed in the time-up-and-go test,” says Delmonico. “There was also a tendency for improved flexibility, as assessed by the sit-and-reach test.”

Delmonico says that as far as he knows this is the first study to combine resistance training, Tai Chi and dietary changes in obese elderly older women, many of whom are Hispanic or African American.

The good news, he says, is that the nutrition and exercise program is not expensive and can easily be adopted by senior centers throughout the country trying to help people who are overweight.

“Exercise at any age and at any amount can be one of the best ways to reduce the risk of chronic disease and promote healthy aging,” says Delmonico. “It’s important to find a type of exercise you enjoy and make it part of your daily routine.”

Besides Delmonico, the article’s other writers were: Stephen Maris, Dinah Quintanilla, Jon Letendre and Jillian Bekke, all of whom recently got their master’s degrees in kinesiology; Amy Taetzsch, who got her master’s in nutrition and food sciences last year; Allison Picard, who got her master’s in speech-language pathology last year; Furong Xu, an associate professor in kinesiology; Leslie Mahler, an associate professor of communicative disorders; and Ingrid Lofgren, an associate professor of nutrition and food sciences.

Pictured above: Women taking Tai Chi classes at St. Martin Des Porres Senior Center in Providence, and Allison Roderick ’15 and Stephen Maris ’14 taking a woman’s blood pressure. Photos by Matt Delmonico.