Association of New England
Pam Delcore, 52, stands tall, hands at her sides, eyes narrowed in concentration. Then she is a blur of white motion, pivoting on one foot and thrusting her hand in the air in a classic "Tai Chi Chung" stance.
She holds the position for a few seconds - so still that her traditional white cotton uniform doesnt move - then she relaxes.
"She couldnt do that in her 30s," her instructor, Frank Cullerton, said. "Shes healthier in her 50s than she was in her 30s."
Delcore has been practicing a form of martial arts known as Chung Moo Doe for 1 1/2 years. A compilation of eight martial styles, Chung Moo Doe includes a range of movements from the fluid motions of Tai Chi to weapons training.
The picture of health now, Delcore suffered the near crippling pain of a ruptured disc 12 years ago. A surgical procedure relieved the immediate pressure on the disc, but Delcore continued to suffer residual back pain and stiffness for years afterward.
"My physical movements were limited," she said. "when I was driving, I couldnt look over my shoulder at the cars. Thats dangerous. I also had stress-related pain in my upper back and shoulders."
At first, she tried swimming and walking, but it didnt seem to help. "Within three weeks, my back felt better."
As an alternative exercise form, martial arts are becoming increasingly popular with seniors, who can particularly benefit from it, Cullerton said.
"The older students especially appreciate the strength and simplicity of the martial arts," Cullerton said. "Most people, when they first come here, havent moved around much in several years, and they see their age having an effect on them."
Growing more frail and inflexible can discourage some seniors from exercising, Cullerton said.
"They think they cant get better because thats what theyve been taught," he said. "But in Asia, at 6 a.m., you cant find an open spot where people 60, 70, 80, 90 years old out practicing Tai Chi."
Incorporating Tai Chi, Kung Fu, Bagua Chung, Ai-Ki-Do/Hap-Ki-Do, weapons training, Jui Jitsu, Kom Do and Tai Kwon Doe, Chung Moo Doe was first brought to the United States in the early 19970s. With thousands of individual movements, Chung Moo Doe can be tailored to each seniors needs, Cullerton said.
"The variety of movements enables us to teach all levels of flexibility and strength and to customize training," Cullerton said.
Take Dr. Irving Kaufman of Newton. Diagnosed with Parkinsons disease 10 years ago, Kaufman should, according to the typical progression of his disease, be in a wheelchair.
Instead, the 80-year-old Kaufman is standing - albeit leaning against a wall for support - in the back of Cullertons class, clasping the handle of a short stainless steel sword in his hand and practicing different grips.
Parkinsons is a degenerative disease that strikes in later life, causing tremors and muscle rigidity. Practicing with weapons, which is part of the Chung Moo Doe training, helps Kaufman increase the dexterity of his hands.
A partially retired psychiatrist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, Kaufman is well aware of the progression of his disease and his corresponding physical limitations. The Chung Moo Doe movements are gentle enough for his body to handle, but taxing enough to keep him strong.
"(Parkinsons) has a downhill course," he said. "It has gotten worse, but the martial arts has helped. Ive been in other programs - stretching programs for seniors in the gym - where everyone did the same thing regardless of their ailment. Martial arts focuses on each of the areas where I have problems."
For his slow, shuffling gait, Chung Moo Doe has movements to help him practice lifting his legs higher. For his labored breathing and stooped posture, there are movements that require him to take full, deep breaths, which increases his lung capacity and helps him stand taller. And, of course, there is weapons training for his hands.
"The movements are expansive," Cullerton Said. "Where lifting weights will tighten muscles, which is bad for circulation, martial arts movements open up the bodys range of motion."
Seniors see such rapid results from martial arts training because it demands so much of them, Cullerton Said. There is no such thing as doing martial arts while watching television, he said with a laugh.
Complete concentration is required to execute the movements properly, Cullerton said. That intense level of concentration stimulates the mind as well as the body.
"You have to focus on each part of the body," he said. "Martial arts movements are actually very simple to do, but theres power in their simplicity."
Marilou Cicero, health representative for the American Association of Retired persons, agreed that seniors who need tailor-made, holistic exercise programs may find martial arts beneficial.
"People are looking for alternative ways to exercise," she said. "What makes martial arts so attractive to seniors, and especially those with acute disabilities or chronic conditions, is that they may not have the same range of motion that others have. They can benefit from martial arts because it promotes intense movements with a limited range of movement. Martial arts can be done sitting in a chair. You dont have to be completely mobile."
For Irwin Wenger, too, the draw to martial arts was also its personal attention to his needs. At 67, Wenger, who lives in Newton, had suffered years of severe back pain - "years of sitting hunched over a computer took its toll."
He tried Nautilus training, and although it increased his muscle tone, it didnt help his flexibility.
"I wasnt able to put my arm behind my head, like this," - he stopped and raised his right arm over his head, then bent his elbow and reached over to touch his left ear. "Chung Moo Doe is giving me flexibility. It uses every part of your body."
"They (martial arts instructors) were interested in me and my problems," he continued. "For back problems, they have seven different movements to work on different areas of your back."
Too often, Cullerton said, seniors wrongly assume they should slow down in their old age, that they are too old to enjoy flexibility and strength.
"Most people think that when they get to be a certain age, they cant do this," Cullerton says, gesturing toward the group of seniors. "But with martial arts, someone in their 60s, 70s, or 80s can still train."
Chung Moo Doe links