Video: 97-year-old Portsmouth tai chi regular

Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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When Gill Stallard tells people she’s still practising tai chi at the age of 72, they’re usually a bit surprised.

But that turns to shock when she explains she only started going to accompany her mother – who is 97.

7/1/15  ''Gladys Grimstead 97 taking part in a Tai Chi class in Southsea.''Picture: Paul Jacobs (15009-1) PPP-150701-162126001

7/1/15 ''Gladys Grimstead 97 taking part in a Tai Chi class in Southsea.''Picture: Paul Jacobs (15009-1) PPP-150701-162126001

Gladys Grimstead, a great-great-grandmother, is the oldest pupil at the Southsea classes.

After a bad fall eight years ago, she started attending light exercise sessions and hasn’t looked back.

From there she was encouraged by teacher Debbie Pentland to join tai chi classes and she’s never looked back.

Gladys says: ‘It was a bit energetic at first but I liked it.

7/1/15  ''Gladys Grimstead 97 taking part in a Tai Chi class in Southsea.''Picture: Paul Jacobs (15009-7) PPP-150701-162313001

7/1/15 ''Gladys Grimstead 97 taking part in a Tai Chi class in Southsea.''Picture: Paul Jacobs (15009-7) PPP-150701-162313001

‘When I started it was a bit tiring, but by the end I feel fine.

‘It makes you feel as if you’ve done something.

‘It does not make all your aches and pains go away but it takes away most of them.’

She adds: ‘I have been to so many of these old age things that I have got to be flexible.

7/1/15  ''Gladys Grimstead 97 taking part in a Tai Chi class in Southsea with daughter Gill Stallard 70''Picture: Paul Jacobs (15009-3) PPP-150701-162202001

7/1/15 ''Gladys Grimstead 97 taking part in a Tai Chi class in Southsea with daughter Gill Stallard 70''Picture: Paul Jacobs (15009-3) PPP-150701-162202001

‘Last week there was no tai chi and I didn’t like it. When you start sitting around, the more you want to sit around.’

Gladys, of Cosham, has had her fair share of tragedy and illness.

She lost her husband Jack 40 years ago. He was suffering from an undiagnosed heart problem and died of a heart attack at work.

Gladys also lost a son in infancy and another in an accident when he was 15.

7/1/15  ''Gladys Grimstead 97 taking part in a Tai Chi class in Southsea.''Picture: Paul Jacobs (15009-4) PPP-150701-162215001

7/1/15 ''Gladys Grimstead 97 taking part in a Tai Chi class in Southsea.''Picture: Paul Jacobs (15009-4) PPP-150701-162215001

She has suffered periods of ill-health over the years – including pernicious anaemia, an autoimmune condition that affects the stomach, and womb cancer when she was in her 30s.

And she had major surgery to treat the cancer four times in the 1950s.

But the nonagenarian has the energy of someone half her age and has no intention of slowing down any time soon.

She says: ‘I feel 50. No older.

‘When I was younger I was never off my bike.

‘I got the moped when I was 50 and I didn’t give it up until I was 72.

‘I would ride to London on it and I loved it.

‘My son gave me the route to miss all the main roads and I’d get up at 4.30am. I was never nervous. It was good fun!

‘By 72 I’d had enough though. I went back to my pushbike and cycled all over the city on it. I only gave that up a few years ago on doctor’s orders because of my hearing.

‘It was a lovely bike and I gave it to my neighbour. I used to get a bit upset when I saw her cycling past on it.’

Gladys says the secret to keeping young is ‘doing what I like, when I like’.

‘I listen to everybody but I go off and do what I was going to do anyway.

‘Also, I like holidays. Since I was widowed I’ve been on holiday twice a year, every year, somewhere sunny.’

All this on top of the fact that four years ago Gladys was diagnosed with a heart rhythm problem and had to have a pacemaker fitted.

She hasn’t had any problems since then.

Gladys lives alone and is fiercely independent.

She does her own cooking, cleaning and shopping and walks as much as she can.

Each week she bakes cakes and gives them to friends and neighbours – but never eats them herself.

Daughter Gill says: ‘When they know mum does tai chi, people usually think “so what” when I tell them I do it too. I’m only 72!

‘People do think she is marvellous. I’m lucky that I have her genes.

‘My daughter is 50 this year and she is like a teenager. I only gave up sequence dancing because my partner fell ill. Otherwise I’d still be doing it.’

The pair swear by tai chi to keep them supple. Gill adds: ‘The benefits of tai chi are not just physical.

‘It’s a very gentle exercise and you don’t feel like you do after you’ve done an aerobics class.

‘When you finish you know you’ve had a good workout and it also clears your mind. You feel refreshed and as if you’ve had a good sleep.’

Gill, a great-grandmother herself, explains how tai chi works.

‘We start off with qi gong breathing and have a short break for a drink of water.

‘We then go into tai chi and gather in the chi.

‘At that point you could quite easily go to sleep as it’s so relaxing – but you do it standing up!

‘It makes you much more supple. And it’s very good for balance, which in turn helps you not to fall as you get older.

‘Tai chi is so good that most people who try it just keep going.

‘It’s not like other classes where people give up after a while.’

Tai chi instructor Debbie has been taking classes across Portsmouth for the past 10 years.

She explains: ‘Tai chi will improve balance, strength of muscles and bones. Lung and heart function will also be improved.

‘It also builds confidence and all classes are very sociable and friendly.

‘I have been teaching tai chi for more than 10 years now and over the years I have seen many people’s lives changed with regular practice.’

Tai chi

Tai chi is a martial art developed in 13th century China.

It combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow and gentle movements.

Tai chi is practised around the world as a health-promoting exercise – and is even encouraged by the NHS.

Studies have shown it can help people aged 65 and over to reduce stress, improve balance and general mobility, and to increase muscle strength in the legs.

It can reduce the chance of falls among older adults, such as Gladys Grimstead, who are at increased risk.

Because it is low impact it does not put much pressure on bones and joints, which means most people should be able to do it.

Because you do not already need to be fit to begin tai chi, it is ideal for inactive older people wanting to raise their activity levels gently and gradually.

Also, many of the tai chi movements can even be adapted to people with a disability, including wheelchair users.

Debbie Pentland runs tai chi classes across Portsmouth.

They are on Monday, 10am until 11am, and Wednesday, midday until 1pm, at St Swithuns Church Hall, Waverley Road, just off Albert Road, Southsea. Classes cost £3.

She also takes classes at Buckland Community Centre, Mallins Road, Buckland, on Fridays from 10am until 11am. Classes cost £2.50. Call (023) 9275 4513 or 07570 800610.