By Craig Dolch
There are a lot of ways for older adults to stay in shape. They can play golf or tennis, do yoga, ride a bike, walk, play the harmonica …
How can playing the harmonica help?
It’s an overlooked way for people to exercise their lungs. That’s why once a week, residents of Quail Ridge Country Club in Boynton Beach gather around a table and develop their harmonica skills.
The notes might be a little off key, but nobody cares. It’s music to their ears — and, more important, a workout for their lungs.
Medical experts say people start losing some of their lung capacity by age 30 and may have only 50 percent of their previous capacity by age 50. Harmonica therapy is especially helpful for people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and even lung transplants.
Unlike other devices built to exercise the lungs, a harmonica requires a person to inhale and exhale deeply. The two-way effort is vital: It’s like lifting weights for your lungs.
Playing the harmonica for as little as 20 seconds can be the equivalent of walking a tenth of a mile.
“The harmonica classes definitely helped my breathing,” said Quail Ridge resident Claire Leone. “And they were fun.”
Leone read a Wall Street Journal story about the positive effect playing a harmonica had on seniors, so she asked Lisa Haggas, Quail Ridge’s director of spa and fitness, if they could start a class. Haggas found Rockin’ Jake, a Delray Beach-based harmonica player who has had his own band since 1990, to come in and teach.
“I thought harmonica therapy would be perfect for our residents,” Haggas said. “We figured 12 harmonicas would be enough, but we had to get more. The residents loved it.”
Rockin’ Jake grew up in New London, Conn., and moved in 1990 to New Orleans, where he lived and performed until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. He has been on the road for more than a quarter century — he once teamed up with Maria Muldaur of Midnight at the Oasis fame — but this is the first time he taught seniors. It was a learning process for both.
“When we first started, most of them had never held a harmonica,” Jake says. “At the end of the classes, they could all play four songs.”
Jake says he picked songs such as Happy Birthday, When the Saints Go Marching In, Oh! Susanna and You Are My Sunshine because the Quail Ridge residents could use them often and they required deeper breathing rhythms.
“This was a whole new thing for me, but it was so incredibly rewarding,” Jake said. “They were so excited with the program, it brought me great happiness.”
More hospitals and rehabilitation centers around the United States are using harmonica therapy to help patients. The key is keeping their lungs strong so patients don’t have to be admitted.
Haggas offers the usual fitness programs for Quail Ridge residents such as yoga, spin classes and more. But she sees something different when they do harmonica therapy.
Smiles. And laughter.
“They have so much more fun doing this,” Haggas said. “They are giggling, but they’re also concentrating because they’re doing something that’s hard.”
Jake says the ultimate progress depends on how much a person practices with the harmonica away from the classes. Jake hopes to expand his teaching into South Florida hospitals and rehab centers.
Besides the breathing benefits, playing the harmonica helps with strengthening abdominal muscles (for a more effective cough), relieves stress, boosts self-confidence and helps with focus, according to the COPD Foundation. It all leads to a better quality of life.
“I hadn’t played a harmonica since I was a child,” Leone said. “Now I don’t want to stop.”