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Front Porch: New exercise routine gives hope, tests expectations

Earlier this month I began doing tai chi.

I’m not sure the class instructor would say that what I’m doing is actually tai chi yet, but I am making an attempt – something that is long overdue. I have spent way too many years not exercising. Movement for me means a bit of gardening, walking a few blocks from my parked car to some event downtown and pushing a cart up and down the aisles of a grocery store.

I know better, especially because I still have a brain reasonably capable of digesting information, and I read. I know that movement helps stave off creeping decrepitude and improves quality of life. Even so, I’ve been sitting still. I’ve been living inside my body while watching it slow down, move with greater awkwardness and generally stiffen up.

I’ll not be one of “those” old people who lists a paragraph’s worth of ailments to explain or justify, so just let me say that I’ve been fighting balance issues since 1991, and over the years the aging process, some impairments and my lack of rigor with physical exercise have taken their toll.

My wonderful husband has tried gently to encourage me, often by expressing pleasure at the gains he’s found in his own recent experience with exercise. As a man who does physically demanding work, he’s always been in good shape, but some age-related conditions and the long-term effects of sports injuries incurred when he was young have been affecting him in ways he was unwilling to accept. A year ago my I-don’t-need-to-exercise- because-I-work-hard husband began a program – and the results have made him very happy, not to mention extending the time he will be able to work and – perhaps most important to him – ski.

I know it pains him to see me getting, as his father used to say, “all stove up.” It’s not that bad yet, but I’m headed there. Our sons, too, have expressed concern, more for the likely effects on my health than anything else, but also because my lack of muscle strength, especially in my legs, and aches and pains have limited some of the things we can do together.

I haven’t had an epiphany. I just slowly got sick and tired of being sick and tired. I have seen tai chi done in films and in parks in other cities, and I have a few friends who swear by it, and it occurred to me that this graceful, slow and gentle form of exercise might be a good path to take to get moving again. I thought I’d read up on it first, but then I looked inside my own head and recognized that as a delaying tactic.

So I just jumped in – not normally an advisable way to begin any endeavor, but I’m glad I did. And it’s not that things went so swimmingly right away. An 87-year-old woman standing next to me, with only a slight bend in her knees, leaned over to put her palms nearly flat on the floor. I leaned over to put my hands on my knees.

I know it’s not a competition, but still …

There’s a steep learning curve, as there is mind and body involvement, deep breathing and movements that – surprisingly – are not that easy to learn, or maybe just not for me just yet. It was difficult to focus on inner life force or energy while concentrating on learning the moves. That, and a quadriceps muscle kept trying to tell me that it wanted to cramp up. I quickly realized that my goal for that first class was simply not to fall over. And in that, it was a success.

Now that I’ve started, I have begun reading about tai chi and do believe it will be good for me. There is an option for chair tai chi, and I may have to split my sessions between sitting and standing to start. I’m okay with that.

A woman in the class, who looks much younger but who told me she was 78, said she’s been doing this for several years now and feels much younger than when she started. It was tough at the beginning, she said.

That’s good to know because I was feeling a little bad that something that looks so easy to do wasn’t for me, and apparently not for her either.

So I continue to attend. I look forward to the physical benefits that may come my way and hope I can properly integrate the spiritual as well. It’s a process, as is life itself, which I believe is what tai chi is all about.

It is making life better for 250 million people worldwide. I hope soon to be one of them.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by e-mail at