The ancient mind-body exercise of tai chi is becoming a modern health management tool. Doctors have discovered that performing tai chi can speed recovery of cancer survivors, reduce bone fractures in older people, and improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s disease and fibromyalgia.
Tai chi evolved as a martial art, like kung fu and taikwondo. It combines traditional patterns of slow, graceful movements with mindfulness and controlled breathing. As a fighting style, tai chi emphasizes balance and concentration, meeting force and aggression with calmness and flexibility to deflect the opponent’s energy rather than trading blows. Those same elements have made it a popular low impact exercise with obvious health benefits.
But doctors at the University of Missouri wondered if those health benefits could be used to help cancer patients regain some of the cognitive function (the ability to pay attention), that is lost from battling the disease. They asked 23 women with a history of cancer, including ovarian cancer, breast cancer, and leukemia to participate in tai chi Classes two times per week. After 10 weeks the women reported improved concentration with reduced stress, better mood, and more energy.
In a report published this month in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, the doctors who designed the study, Stephanie Reid-Arndt, Sandy Matsuda, and Cathy Cox said that loss of cognitive function occurs in about 30 percent of patients recovering from a severe form of cancer.
Cognitive loss can cause stress and harm psychological well being. They said that many cancer survivors have traditionally used drugs to overcome these problems. Tai chi may provide an alternative therapy to speed recovery and restore psychological well being, they said.
In a different study at the Oregon Research Institute, patients with Parkinson’s disease had substantial improvement in their balance after twice-weekly tai chi sessions for 24 weeks. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease of the nervous system that causes tremors and loss of muscle control. It affects over six million people worldwide. As the disease progresses, people frequently lose the ability to keep their balance and perform simple tasks.
Traditional treatments to prevent these problems, such as stretching and weight training, provide some relief. But the research team of doctors Fuzhong Li, Peter Harmer, Kathleen Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Eckstrom, Ronald Stock, Johnny Galver, Gianni Maddalozzo, and Sara S. Batya speculated that tai chi might provide better results.
“Because the program emphasized rhythmic weight shifting, symmetric foot stepping, and controlled movements near the limits of stability, we hypothesized that tai chi would be more effective in improving postural stability in limits-of-stability tasks than a resistance-based exercise regimen or low-impact stretching,” they said.
They suggested that the constant shifting of body weight and flexibility required by tai chi helped patients develop better reflexes to respond to the dyskinesia (loss of body control), caused by Parkinson’s. More work needs to be done, they said, but their results “show that tai chi is more effective than low-intensity, low-impact exercise programs in alleviating the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and improving functional ability.”
In two other recent studies, people with fybromyalgia and osteopenia showed improvement in their ability to cope with their disease after practicing tai chi.
Fybromyalgia is a disease that causes widespread pain, fatigue, cognitive disturbance (lack of concentration), and joint stiffness. With no known cure, patients frequently require medication to control their symptoms. Doctors from five medical institutes in Germany asked 362 of their patients with fibromyalgia to engage in “meditative movement therapies” which include yoga, tai chi, and Qigong, an exercise similar to tai chi.
The patients reported less fatigue and depression and fewer sleep disturbances. It wasn’t clear if the results would last, but the researchers concluded that meditative movement therapies like tai chi could provide a safe alternative to drug therapy for many people suffering from fibromyalgia.
Finally, doctors at Harvard Medical School reported in February that older women with osteopenia (reduced bone density), showed significant improvement in their bone density and their loss of mobility due to aging after completing a nine month course of tai chi.
Osteopenia occurs frequently in women after menopause, making them much more prone to bone fractures even from minor stumbles and falls. In the Harvard study, the womens’ bone density was monitored as well as their “bio-motion,” their ability to keep their balance while moving. In both measures the women who practiced tai chi showed clear improvement over a control group who received only the usual care for osteopenia.
Why was tai chi better than standard, low-impact exercises such as walking and stretching? The doctors suggested that the exaggerated movements of the hips and lower legs required by tai chi exerted more pressure on the bones and muscles, causing them to gradually strengthen.
Tai chi clearly shows promise as a safe, life-enhancing alternative to traditional medical techniques for helping older women maintain the strength and mobility, they said.