Researchers and aficionados of the ancient Chinese art of tai chi are already aware of how this moving meditation can help reduce stress and improve balance. Now a new study finds that the gentle flowing motions of this so-called “soft martial art” can help improve balance problems commonly suffered by Parkinson’s patients. The study finds that bi-weekly tai chi training improved balance and reduced falls among a group of patients with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease.
“While medication can relieve some, but not all Parkinson’s symptoms such as tremors, rigidity and slowness,” explained lead author Fuzhong Li of the Oregon Research Institute, “Tai chi helped patients improve their posture and balance.” The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine Wednesday.
Every day, up to a million Americans are coping with Parkinson’s disease, one of the most common nervous system disorders among the elderly. Parkinson’s patients lose muscle function because nerve cells in a certain part of the brain that produce dopamine are slowly destroyed and the brain can no longer properly send messages. As a results, patients develop characteristic tremors of the hands, arms, legs, jaw and face, as well as poor posture and difficulty maintaining balance, among many other possible symptoms.
Li explained that exercise is an important part of treatment for Parkinson’s patients, helping them to increase and retain their mobility. The authors conducted a clinical trial that included 195 patients with mild to moderate Parkinson’s. They were randomly assigned to one of three exercise groups that performed one hour of exercise, twice a week for 24 weeks. The exercises were tai chi, resistance training, or stretching.
The patients in the tai chi group learned six movements that were combined into a routine. Tai chi requires participants to use conscientious controlled use of muscles, combined with balance shifts and trunk movements. “Imagine standing on a moving bus,” Li explained, “And when the bus turns a corner and changes speed, you need to shift your balance and move your feet to remain stable. That’s similar to how the tai chi training works.”
Participants were evaluated when the study began, at three months, six months and again three months after the trial ended. Patients in the tai chi group improved posture stability and balance, compared to people in the resistance training and stretching groups. Tai chi also reduced falls, and the study notes: “Falls are a common and sometimes life-threatening event in patients with Parkinson’s disease. However, to our knowledge, no clinical trial has shown the efficacy of exercise in reducing falls in this population.”
The tai chi movements involved controlled swaying using ankles and hips, which helped patients to increase their stability, Li explained, adding “Exercise can be an integral part of the treatment for Parkinson’s disease, and tai chi can be used as a self-care activity that patients can do at home, requiring no special equipment.”
The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation also echoes the importance of using exercise as part of a multifaceted treatment program, which may also include prescription drug therapy, and deep brain stimulation therapy to control Parkinson’s symptoms. “Regular exercise or physical therapy is crucial for maintaining and improving mobility, flexibility, balance, and range of motion,” their website notes, adding that researchers believe exercise may play a part in preventing the progression of the disease.