The Healing Power of Tai Chi

Sep 23, 2015

The ancient Chinese exercise can alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life for people suffering from chronic conditions, including cancer, osteoarthritis, heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These are the findings of a study published this month by physical therapy professor Darlene Reid in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. By analyzing data of over 1,500 patients with one of these four chronic conditions, Reid and her colleagues found that Tai Chi improved physical capacity and quality of life without causing pain or breathlessness. She spoke with Faculty of Medicine writer Carolyn Morris about her research.

Professor Darlene ReidProfessor Darlene Reid examining an image of muscle cells.

How did you become interested in the benefits of Tai Chi for chronic diseases?

I initially became interested in Tai Chi years ago while living in Vancouver. During my early morning runs or bike rides I would see people in a park or just outside their home performing the slow rhythmic movements of Tai Chi. Another reason Tai Chi piqued my interest is my constant search for alternative types of therapeutic exercise. As a physiotherapist working with people who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is most often caused by smoking in Canada, it was obvious that some people didn’t warm up to the idea of performing exercise in a gym, on a stationary bike or on a treadmill. It can be intimidating or simply too strenuous. Plus, even physically active Canadians often have to find different types of exercise during the winter because of the weather. So I’m always looking for alternative ways for my clients to maintain or improve their fitness level.

How effective is Tai Chi in improving health for people with chronic diseases?

Tai Chi has been shown to be consistently effective towards improving quality of life, increasing muscle strength, walking distance, balance and coordination in people with heart failure, osteoarthritis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In our study, large groups of people were evaluated and most people demonstrated improvements. An added value of Tai Chi is that it improved many aspects of fitness without aggravating symptoms. In fact, Tai Chi decreased pain and stiffness in people with arthritis and decreased breathlessness in people with lung disease. 

How did you measure this?

We combined several scientific reports in a pooled statistical analysis. We included 33 reports that examined 1584 patients with one of four chronic conditions: heart failure, osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or cancer. With this type of analysis, we can determine if an overall benefit has occurred. Some studies might show an improvement and other studies may not, so by doing a pooled analysis, one can determine the bottom line from all of the research.

Is it unusual for an exercise to not cause worsening pain or breathlessness in this patient population?

Yes and no. Often when people experience pain or breathlessness there is a perception that exercise or physical activity might make these symptoms worse. However, the right kind of exercise can build up muscle to cushion the joints and actually alleviate pain. Exercise can also dramatically decrease breathlessness; when someone improves their fitness level, the muscles use oxygen more efficiently so it takes less breathing for the same amount of physical exertion. Regardless of these benefits though, certain types of exercise such as high-impact training can aggravate symptoms. Tai Chi appears to improve many attributes of fitness without any of the negatives.

What is it about Tai Chi that makes it so beneficial for these conditions?

Tai Chi is a very efficient exercise. It may look slow and meditative, but it’s actually working on several levels – improving strength, balance, coordination, and increasing range of motion. Instead of having to do different training sessions for each of these, Tai Chi provides it all in one comprehensive workout. It’s also sustainable in that once you get started and begin noticing the benefits, it’s easy to integrate into your weekly routine. It requires no special equipment or gear. You can join a class in a park or recreation centre, or follow a CD or YouTube video at home. With its slow rhythmic movements and spiritual attributes, many people might find Tai Chi more enjoyable than more vigorous types of exercise.

Will we be seeing prescriptions for Tai Chi soon – or have we already?

I expect Tai Chi will gain increasing recognition in the western world. With an aging population, often with more than one chronic condition, fitness is really important for people to maintain their independence and reduce mortality. For any exercise regime to be really successful, it has to become part of our routine and something we can sustain over many years. Tai Chi seems to be a great option for a lot of people. And now we know it delivers clear health results.

Darlene Reid is Professor and Chair of the Department of Physical Therapy. She moved to the University of Toronto from the University of British Columbia in fall of 2014.  

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