Miami-Dade’s fitness program for those 55 and over yields many benefits

On Friday morning, underneath the shade of a giant oak tree at Continental Park in Kendall, tai chi instructor Mario Leon shows his class of 15 how to do the “White Crane Spreads its Wings.”

Leon turns his body slowly to the left, with his legs slightly parted, his left hand in front of his chest with the palm down. The students, who are participating in the hourlong tai chi class as part of Miami-Dade Parks’ “Active Adults 55+ Program,” are quick learners. They watch and mimic his moves, turning their right hands, with palms up, across their waists, as they gently sway while holding an imaginary ball.

At Leon’s command, they take a half step forward and shift their weight onto one leg and then move the opposite leg forward with their toes lightly touching the dew-sprinkled grass. Tai chi, a slow-movement Chinese martial art known for its health and longevity benefits, is helping this group to improve their circulation, flexibility, alignment, breathing and balance. It is the newest class of the Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department’s new lineup of free fitness classes geared for people 55 and older.

“You don’t get tired, your muscles don’t hurt,” says Kendall resident Eva Rapoport, who at 87 could pass for 20 years younger. “Your body relaxes at the same time that you exercise and your mind gets clear.”

After the tai chi class, Rapoport went inside the park’s community center, where she danced the Macarena and The Electric Slide. The dancing is part of the “Enhance Fitness” class, taught by Aileen Alino, who incorporates fun lessons based on strength training, flexibility, balance and cardio-conditioning.

“It has made all the difference in the world,” said Ofelia Condron, 76, “both physically and emotionally.”

Allan Tavss, the program’s coordinator, said the “older” community saw no reason to go to a park before, thinking it just catered to kids. He hopes the word will spread about the “Active Adults 55+ Program,” which aims to help older adults improve their well-being by staying physically active. “People will be happy, healthy and live longer — which is really what it’s all about,” he said.

Launched in September 2013, the program, which is held at 14 community centers in Miami-Dade’s parks, not only offers fitness classes but also hosts monthly wellness fairs and registration for field trips. The field trips includes one-day trips to such South Florida landmarks as Fruit and Spice Park in South Dade, the Everglades, and the Deering Estate in Palmetto Bay.

“We enjoy the camaraderie with all in the class and the trips are just the icing on the cake,” said one participant, who took a recent trip to the Everglades on an airboat ride.

“Tai chi likes simplicity,” said Leon, as birds above him chirped on the branches of the oak tree. “The idea is that we learn to relax more. We are under so much stress in our daily lives.”

He looked at his stomach and says, “I don’t have a six-pack and I don’t care, because I’m happy — I’m relaxed.” He adds that as people age they tend to shrink because they don’t stretch enough.

The fluid motions in tai chi not only help with posture but also, “help to improve circulation and strengthen the core,” he says.

He demonstrates another tai chi move to the class, this time with an emphasis on aligning the spine.

“Come up and stretch while opening your chest and neck upward — go down slowly and pick up the water from the river,” he says while swooping down, to collect imaginary water from a make-believe river. “Come up one vertebrae at a time, like a stretching cat.”