Relaxation, balance, and confidence: One participant’s MSU Extension tai chi experience

Diane Hyer of Marquette County talks about the many benefits of Michigan State University Extension’s tai chi classes.

Diane Hyer (right) with her husband Jim.
Diane Hyer (right) with her husband Jim.

Tai chi has a multitude of health benefits — it has been shown to reduce the physical effects of stress, reduce bone loss, increase strength, improve balance and stability and reduce chronic pain. Tai chi has even been shown to speed recovery time from health problems like strokes and heart attacks.

For Diane Hyer of Marquette County, it has done all that and more.

Along with her husband Jim, the 77-year-old Skandia resident has been taking various tai chi classes over the past few years. In 2016, the couple took winter sessions taught by a Northern Michigan University instructor. This fall, they took classes through their local Marquette County Michigan State University Extension. In its mission to help people improve their lives through education, MSU Extension, the outreach arm of the university, offers many programs like tai chi to help people become healthier and stronger.

Diane spoke to MSU Extension about her experiences in the class, her improved strength and why she thinks everyone should try tai chi — at least once.

What have you enjoyed most about taking tai chi classes?

Well, really for Jim and I — and we didn’t even know it — it was about learning to move slower. And there’s a breathing part of it, too, that I don’t normally think about. When you’re doing something, take a good breath. You don’t have to be in a hurry to do everything.

Have the skills you’ve learned in the classes made you feel safer or stronger?

Yes, both of us feel safer and stronger. I didn’t realize that, the first day we went there, we had to walk and move our hands at the same time. And because you don’t do it every day, it took us a while to catch on.

We need core muscles desperately, both of us. Jim has a horrible, horrible back, and we need the extra strength to get around. Jim works in a garden, we have a huge garden, so he has to have core strength. I think he was able to, through this class, get much better. We both have.

In fact, I fell on the kitchen floor a while ago. And here’s my problem: I have two artificial knees and three fixed vertebrae in my back. I was on the floor at 3 o’clock in the morning, in the kitchen, by myself. I was scared. But I turned myself, grabbed my walker, pushed with my left foot and stood up. I haven’t done that in years.

Do you think the exercises you learned and strength you gained through tai chi helped you get up after that fall?

Oh, yeah. Definitely. Because I didn’t panic or anything. I just kind of relaxed and said, “Well, I’ll try it once. If I don’t get up, I’ll yell for help.” But I popped right up. I couldn’t believe it. My husband couldn’t even believe I got off the floor.

Balance is really important as we age, especially in a place like Marquette, which can get very snowy, icy and slippery in the winter. How has your balance improved since practicing tai chi?

Oh, I would say balance has improved by 90 percent, both for Jim and I. We’ve done really well since the classes started in September. We have a huge deck that overlooks the old farm field, and it’s nice to get out there. We can get some breathing in and move a little more in the mornings and relax, before everything’s all go, go, go all day long.

What are some of the other physical benefits you’ve noticed after taking tai chi?

We’re both going to cardiac rehab at the hospital right now. Jim had a massive coronary last February, and he had three stents put in. And then I had a heart attack in June, and two days later, I had three bypasses. So, Jim and I are coming back off of rehab for heart attacks and took [the tai chi classes].

You get scared and don’t want to do anything, but they say you’ve got to get moving and get up and around. [Tai chi] was good; it was a little simpler and moved slower for us, and we could learn to breathe again.

What advice would you give for anyone who is nervous to try something new like tai chi?

Oh, I would advise them to try it at least once. The movements are so relaxing and make your muscles feel so much better. Like the backs of your legs—you just don’t do things every day where you use those muscles. But just to stand and do the exercises makes your body feel so much better. I feel more relaxed after I’ve done a session than I would just walking around the house. And maybe it’s because I’m just taking care of myself.

Do you plan to take more tai chi classes in the future?

Oh, yes. Our class was all elderly people — 15 or 16 of us, men and women, and it went very well. Just meeting these people . . . there were people in braces and with canes, and we all did really well. It was nice being out as a social thing, with someone’s who’s in the same boat as you are.

And there’s another program [Matter of Balance] where you learn how to prevent falls that we’re going to take. Both Jim and I are trying to prevent falls. I don’t want a broken hip. But we’d also take another tai chi, for sure.

To find a tai chi class near you, visit your county’s MSU Extension page.


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