ACC class helps a man ditch his scooter and walk

by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Tai chi instructor Joyce Spreyer leads a group of seniors through a routine.For anyone meeting Tom Benjamin for the first time, it is easy to miss how remarkable he is.

He walks up, smiles and shakes your hand. So, what is the big deal?

Actually, it’s a very big deal. A short time ago Benjamin would have needed to use a scooter, or at best a cane, to painfully get around the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.

It’s not as though an evangelist swept through town and healed Benjamin. He can walk again because he started taking Joyce Spreyer’s tai chi class. This puts Benjamin in the mood to celebrate, and also maybe to brag a little bit.

“I had lost most of my mobility,” Benjamin said. “I needed to use an electronic scooter. I needed a cane to get in and out of cars. I would get foot infections. Physical therapy wasn’t helping at all.”

When Spreyer started offering her ACC class last September, Benjamin did not see it as his big chance to become mobile again.

Actually, he thought tai chi was for the birds. He remembers his actual words were: “I’m not going to try this silly stuff.”

Spreyer’s class was to be used as part of an exercise pilot program across the country that had the goal of preventing falls in elderly people.

“They hooked me with the scientific aspect of it,” Benjamin said. “They found a way to suck me in and try it.”

Now there could not be a more enthusiastic tai chi practitioner than Benjamin. No scooter, no cane and no back pain.

“This class fits my needs so well,” Benjamin said. “It targets my psychological problems as well as my physical problems. This class has reversed five or seven years of problems. It has changed the way I think about my movements.”

There has been one more big benefit.

“I’ve lost 30 pounds,” Benjamin said. “Wow.”

What is tai chi? It is an ancient Chinese art form combining slow, graceful movements, relaxation and natural breathing. It looks easy — in fact, too easy for formerly active people like Benjamin — but it requires intense concentration, stimulates the brain, improves body awareness and harmonizes body, mind and spirit.

And it might let you stick your scooter in the garage to gather dust.

The person responsible for changing the lives of Benjamin and 23 other people is Spreyer.

“Tom is a good student,” she said. “But he’s not the only success story.”

Spreyer was certainly the right person in the right place at the right time. She had first taken up tai chi 20 years ago after retiring at age 55.

“I knew I would need to exercise in my old age,” Spreyer said. “I saw people doing tai chi. I’m not a gym rat, but when I moved here I took a tai chi class and really loved it. I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I’ve been teaching tai chi now for 17 years.”

Last fall the Oregon Exercise Research Institute decided to sponsor a one-year program at 20 to 30 sites in the Portland metro area, including at the ACC.

“They asked me, ‘Can you teach a class? It starts at 3 p.m.,’ ” Spreyer said. “When I heard about the trial I said, ‘Yes!’ ”

Since September, Spreyer’s 24 class members have been practicing twice a week for two hours at a time. They have broken psychological barriers built by fear. Stability has been gained. The brain has been rewired so the body can achieve balance.

“Everyone in the class says they’ve improved,” Spreyer said. “Even ones who can’t move.”

Occasionally, old habits creep back up on Benjamin. Sometimes while going with his wife on shopping trips he starts walking too fast and his back starts to hurt.

“Then I know I’m not doing it right,” Benjamin said. “When I get back into my rhythm I stop hurting.”

However, the trial will end this fall, and all the tai chi lovers at the ACC want to keep their class going. Plans are in the works.

Spreyer said, “We want to have an advanced class at the West End Building that will build on what we have already learned. Gradually, we’ll bring in new people. We’ll introduce new things. We’ll play with it.”

Now that Benjamin is healed, he just wants to have fun.

“Tai chi has more impact than people believe, but it’s not really heavy impact,” he said. “This is entertainment, not exercise.”

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