NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Balanced on one leg like flamingos, a dozen people older than 60 concentrate on staying upright, as they master the basics of tai chi (search).
Some are in sock feet, some are barefoot and one wears black dress shoes with shiny gold buckles.
"Tai chi teaches balance and proper breathing — two things seniors don't do well," said 72-year-old Harold Leach, a participant at the Donelson Senior Center and occasional instructor.
Those benefits, along with others like lowered blood pressure and better sleep, have prompted seniors to try exercises they might have once considered too "new-agey" or "touchy-feely," according to Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise (search).
"Now that they've become more accepted as mainstream physical activities, that's led to them going into older populations," he said.
The trend isn't limited to senior centers.
Companies like Gold's Gym — the bodybuilding mecca where Arnold Schwarzenegger found fame almost three decades ago — now has a portion of its staff dedicated to senior-friendly exercise programs.
While they don't offer tai chi, Gold's Gyms across the country regularly give exercisers a different way to stretch and tone with similar mind-body classes like yoga and Pilates. In recent years, the change in those classes' demographics has been striking, officials say, with more people older than 60 joining.
"Once they see one or two of the seniors try the class, that's all it takes," said Vicki Topp, Gold's instructor coordinator for senior citizen programs in south Florida. "Now they all try it, and want to see who does the best."
Tai chi, a Chinese exercise that focuses on slow, fluid movements, is believed to have originated around the 12th century. Some scholars have traced the origins of yoga back 5,000 years.
The idea that tai chi and yoga — which promote increased flexibility, toned muscles and better concentration — is particularly beneficial to older people isn't new. But it's taken a while to convince people to give it a try.
A 1996 study by Dr. Steven L. Wolf of the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta found that older people who took part in a 15-week tai chi program reduced their risk of falling by more than 47 percent.
Wolf, who studied 200 people age 70 and older, also found those who practiced tai chi took more deliberate steps and walked slightly more slowly compared to those who didn't take the class.
"The tai chi group seemed to have more confidence," Wolf said at the time. "They had an increased sense of being able to do all that they would like to do."
Back at the Donelson center in Nashville, Sara Stryker is a believer.
After having her second knee replacement surgery two years ago, the 78-year-old Hermitage woman knew she had to resume exercising. But her surgeries made returning to traditional aerobics impossible.
"I didn't have the balance I used to have, and this helps me with that," Stryker said. "I do it as much as I can."
Despite the increased senior interest in mind-body exercises, older people in general still don't get enough exercise, according to Bryant.
"There is much more information to support the benefits of seniors exercising, but as a nation we're just not responding to the message as we should," he said.
Members of the Donelson tai chi group are working to change that. The exercisers regularly take their act on the road to local health fairs to educate and recruit other seniors.
It worked for 66-year-old Betty Underhill, who saw the class perform two years ago and has been exercising with them ever since.
"I thought, 'Those people look as old as me. If they can do it, I can, too.'"