Posted on May 17, 2020 by Jana Schwartz

MAY 11, 2020 — Improving the health and outlook on life for one of the most vulnerable populations in San Antonio through an alternative approach is the goal of one research group out of UTSA and UT Health San Antonio.

Zenong Yin , public health professor in the College for Health, Community and Policy; Cristina Martinez, measurement and evaluation specialist in HCaP; and Martha Martinez, a faculty member at UT Health's School of Nursing, are leading the "Function Improvement Exercises for Older Sedentary Community-Dwelling Latino Residents" pilot study.

The project is meant to improve the physical and cognitive functions and the quality of life in older Latino adults through incorporating the Chinese health qigong exercise Five Animal Play into their everyday lives.

Since February about 60 seniors from Palacio de Sol, Good Samaritan, Ella Austin—all senior and community centers in San Antonio's West Side and East Side communities—have participated in the study.

"Dr. Yin wanted to provide low-cost exercise programming to senior centers in the West Side and lower-income neighborhoods with this idea to modify Chinese mind and body exercises," Cristina Martinez said. “The exercises are not too intense for the seniors and they focus on coordinating their movement and breath.”

“We will be able to explore if the mind-body exercise can help to lower the level of stress and its harm.”

Chinese health qigong is a form of mind-body exercise, like yoga, that has been practiced as part of the complementary and alternative medicine in both Chinese and Western populations. The qigong exercises have demonstrated small to medium effects on the improvement of various physical and cognitive functions, stress and depression, and quality of life in various study populations, according to Yin.

“Qigong exercises are low-impact, low-cost and low-to-moderate-intensity physical activities that can be practiced safely by all ages with minimum space and equipment requirements,” Yin said. “Specifically, the Five Animal Play or Wu Qing Xi in Chinese is a set of movements imitating a tiger, bear, monkey, bird and deer that target multiple areas of the body. The movements are a combination of stretches, balancing, bearing of body weight and eye-hand coordination. Controlled breathing is integrated into each movement.”

The seniors, who are broken up into two intervention groups and one control group were participating in twice-weekly group exercise sessions before the COVID-19 pandemic while also doing at-home qigong exercises.

The two intervention sites are receiving the qigong exercises from community health workers. The control site is receiving a program on healthy aging, also delivered by the community health workers. The purpose of intervention versus control sites is to see if the seniors experience the same or different health changes, Cristina Martinez said.

Since the enactment of stay-at-home orders and senior center closures, the community health workers have been calling each participant to provide support and encouragement to continue the exercises, Yin said.

“The study team is very grateful that the seniors are continuing their participation in the study during this stressful time,” Yin said. “We are also very happy that our community health workers can provide some support to the seniors who face many challenges to stay healthy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The team recently started tracking the stress level of the participants now that they are just at home, Yin said.

“The seniors have reported an increased level of stress. Research has shown that mind-body exercise can reduce the level of stress and improve the immune function, so we will be able to explore if the mind-body exercise can help to lower the level of stress and its harm on the seniors,” he said.

The community health workers working with the seniors have already seen positive results.

“They feel improvement in their overall well-being. Now, that we are calling them one-on-one they feel much freer to express whatever their improvement is in each case,” said Maria Zamudio, a community health worker. “They say that even though they are worried and anxious about the uncertainty of these days. They feel more relaxed and calm when they are doing the exercises at home.”

The overall pilot study started with phase I at the Madonna Center on the West Side last fall.

“What we did at the beginning was work with the seniors there at Madonna to see what they thought and if they liked the exercises,” Martha Martinez said. “When you're doing community work you always have to check with the community first before you move forward and make sure this is something they're going to like.”

After initial meetings in August the research group spent September to December regularly meeting with the participants before kicking off phase II in February.

“The Madonna seniors liked it. They thought the exercises were beneficial, but they weren't too harsh on their bodies and it was something they could do,” Martha Martinez said. “Also, because the music is so soft and the movements are so well-coordinated, that it was very relaxing for them.”

Martinez adds that having a program like this will help strengthen the community.

“Seniors are a very vulnerable population and the seniors that we are working with, which is mainly in the low-income populations, they by default, have always had a poor health outcome,” Martha Martinez said. “So the goal of this program is to strengthen the seniors and not just their body but their mood, their balance and their outlook on life. I think strengthening the seniors strengthens the country.”

— Jana Schwartz