A group of seniors — predominantly septuagenarians — gathers each Tuesday afternoon at a gym, moving with a distinct fluidity and grace. The half-dozen participants, who live with Parkinson's disease, spend an hour practicing tai chi and chi kung, a program of soft flexing, stretching and controlled breathing at Body Fitness.
Sponsored by the University of South Florida's Movement Disorder Center and the National Parkinson Foundation, it is geared to help people with the disease, a disorder of the nervous system that reduces muscular control.
"I don't have many outward signs," says Jim Hottel, one of the participants. "Sometimes I tell my hand to do something and by then I've spilled it or made a mess of something. I know what I intend to do, but …"
The Spring Hill resident takes no medications for the ailment that has limited his movements for a couple of years.
"It's really pretty good,'' he said of the program. "I find it's helpful to me, to a lot of people."
Another member of the group, Murray Plotkin, 77, tapped a reporter's notebook and declared, "My medications are as long as this sheet."
The former New York City train conductor suffered for 20 years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson's. His hands shook so much his boss asked him if he punched tickets with a machine gun.
Plotkin, who had three back surgeries in three years to go along with the Parkinson's, used to hobble around with a four-pronged cane.
"I couldn't stand for more than 10 minutes," he said. Now, with medicine and tai chi, "at least I'm walking around."
At a recent class, the Spring Hill resident stood alone, spread his feet to shoulder width and performed about 15 minutes of leg and arm exercises without incident.
J.J. Philips, the youngest of the group at 59, swallows daily "more meds than you can shake a stick at," including the first human trial of an antibiotic that has been shown to slow, and sometimes reverse, his type of illness in mice.
Philips, who has lived in Spring Hill for six years, was diagnosed in January 2009 with multiple system atrophy, MSA, which he described as "Parkinson's-plus."
"It's quicker than Parkinson's," said the former judge from Charleston County, S.C. "It's just like it says, all systems begin to atrophy.
He foresees the need for a cane, then a wheelchair, followed by bed confinement. MSA is currently incurable, he said.
The exercise program is a good fit for him.
"It helps me with my balance," he said. "I also have a bad disc in my back, which limits the exercise I can do, so this one I can do."
While he exercises at home on a limited basis, he added, "It's easier with a group. It gets you motivated."
Bob Emmans' bout with Parkinson's began six or seven years ago. With daily medications, the 78-year-old Spring Hill resident's hands still tremor and his legs lock up every now and then.
"I feel better after the program," said Emmans, who has been doing tai chi for three years. "I do it at home, occasionally at the gym here."
Class instructor Susan Frangello, a social worker at skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities for 40 years, has followed tai chi regimens for seven years and taught them for four throughout the Tampa Bay area.
She recently led her students through flexes and stretches of their shoulders, back, waist, arms, fingers and legs. With some seated and some standing, they regulated their breathing while performing dancelike movements to a fluid musical background, always reaching "for the chi, the life force," before finishing with a clasped-hands martial arts bow.