More evidence for the benefits of Tai Chi from study on people with Parkinson’s Disease

A special offer for Monday morning: a trip to paradise in three square feet of space, lasting thirty minutes, at no cost to you at all. Sound good? Well that’s what Tai Chi proponent Liang Tung-Tsai felt this form of exercise offers, but I’m afraid I don’t have any evidence for that. However, Tai Chi keeps cropping up when I read about the benefits of exercise so I thought I’d take a closer look.

Tai Chi (or Tai Chi Chuan), as explained by the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain, is a form of exercise which is suitable for all ages and physical abilities and can be practiced on many levels, ranging from a simple ‘meditative’ exercise to a martial art.The form of Tai Chi which might be most easily recognised is the Hand Form, a series of slow hand movements, which Traditional Chinese Medicine asserts promote the flow of Qi (Chi) energy, as well as increasing flexibility, suppleness and exercising the muscles. People also value it for its mental benefits, finding that it aids relaxation and mental focus.

A recently-published study found that Tai Chi was beneficial for people with mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s Disease (PD), a condition which impairs balance and leads to reduced physical functioning and an increased risk of falling. Previously, few exercise programmes have been shown to be effective for people with PD.

The researchers tested the effectiveness of Tai Chi for people with PD in improving postural control, compared with resistance training or stretching exercises, in a randomised controlled trial. They also tested its effect on how accurate people’s movements were. These functions are important in enabling a person to move around and carry out simple actions such as reaching for something from a shelf and getting up out of a chair, everyday activities which can become difficult for people with PD. The 195 participants in the trial had mild-to-moderate PD and took part in hour-long group classes twice a week for 24 weeks. Here’s what they found:

  • The Tai Chi group performed better than both the stretching group and the resistance-training group in tests of balance, reach and walking speed
  • The Tai Chi group reported significantly fewer falls than the stretching group (0.22 v 0.62 per patient per month; P=0.005) and fewer falls than the resistance-training group, though that difference was not statistically significant
  •  The effects were maintained at 3 months after the intervention
  • No serious adverse effects were reported

The authors concluded:

 “Tai chi training appears to reduce balance impairments in patients with mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease, with additional benefits of improved functional capacity and reduced falls.”

This was a small trial but it adds to the body of evidence on the benefits of this gentle form of exercise. Tai Chi was also found to be effective in reducing falls in a Cochrane review on falls prevention in older people, which I blogged about here last week.

Trip to paradise? Probably not. I leave you with the words of an old yogi who, when asked what gift he wanted for his birthday, replied: “I wish no gifts, only presence.”

 Links:

The Tai Chi Union for Great Britain website

Li F, Harmer P, Fitzgerald K, Eckstrom E, Stock R, Galver J, Maddalozzo G, Batya SS. Tai Chi and Postural Stability in Patients with Parkinson’s Disease. N Engl J Med 2012; 366:511-519. February 9, 2012.

Gillespie LD, Robertson MC, Gillespie WJ, Lamb SE, Gates S, Cumming RG, Rowe BH. Interventions for preventing falls in older people living in the community. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD007146. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD007146.pub2.

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Sarah Chapman

My name is Sarah Chapman. I have worked on systematic reviews and other types of research in many areas of health for the past 17 years, for the Cochrane Collaboration and for several UK higher education institutions including the University of Oxford and the Royal College of Nursing Institute. I also have a background in nursing and in the study of the History of Medicine.

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