Tai Chi benefits seniors with certain long-term conditions

New research suggests that the ancient Chinese martial art Tai Chi benefits older people with a range of long-term conditions, bringing physical and quality-of-life benefits to those with osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, breast cancer and heart failure.
[Seniors practicing Tai Chi]
Tai Chi brings a range of benefits to seniors with a variety of health conditions, including cancer, heart disease and arthritis, according to new research.

The mesmerizing image of groups of people taking part in the synchronized, flowing movements of Tai Chi is surely a familiar one from movies, if not your local park in summer, and has become increasingly popular in Western cultures, too.

Used as a complementary therapy, Tai Chi has also been incorporated into more traditional Western health care approaches in several chronic conditions, including cancer, heart disease and arthritis.

It is often thought of as a low- to moderate-intensity physical work out suitable for anyone, but especially those in middle or later years, as it puts little strain on muscles and joints, while relieving stress and anxiety.

This latest study, published in British Journal of Sports Medicine, was conducted by a research team from the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

The researchers wished to know if Tai Chi was an effective physical activity that improved symptoms, physical function, quality of life and depression among individuals with breast cancer, osteoarthritis, heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Tai Chi improved physical capacity and muscle strength

Fast facts about osteoarthritis

  • Osteoarthritis affects nearly 34% of people aged 65 or over in the US
  • Knee and hip joint replacement procedures account for 35% of total arthritis-related procedures during hospitalization
  • About 80% of patients with osteoarthritis have some degree of movement limitation.

Learn more about osteoarthritis

Of more than 1,100 articles were uncovered by the literature research, 34 studies involving nearly 1,600 participants were deemed suitable for inclusion. The 21 articles that best met the study criteria were then closely analyzed. In these, the age range of participants was found to be from the mid-50s to early 70s.

On average, participants took part in two to three Tai Chi sessions a week for 12 weeks, with most classes lasting an hour.

Tai Chi was found to be associated with “trends, or definite” improvement in physical capacity and muscle strength in “most or all” of the four long-term conditions under consideration.

Specifically, among participants with osteoarthritis, there was some relief of pain and stiffness and a measurable improvement in “sit-to-stand” tests – commonly used for assessing lower-extremity strength and balance. Among participants with COPD, there was a reduction in breathlessness.

Overall, there were improvements seen in other tests, such as the “six-minute walking test” (6 MWT) – one of a handful of low-tech, simple-to-perform objective evaluations of the capacity to do functional exercise – and the so-called “TUG time,” the time it takes to get up and move about.

Based on their findings, the research team concludes that Tai Chi may ben beneficial for individuals with certain medical conditions:

“To summarize, Tai Chi appears to provide an adequate exercise stimulus and it could be a suitable exercise to prescribe for people with several comorbidities that include COPD, HF [heart failure] and OA [osteoarthritis].”

Last year, Medical News Today reported on research suggesting Tai Chi may be a useful remedy for chronic inflammation in breast cancer survivors with insomnia.

Written by Jonathan Vernon

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