Mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease patients who practice Tai Chi were found to experience significant benefits, including better posture, fewer falls, and improved walking ability, researchers from the Oregon Research Institute (ORI) reported in NEJM (New England Journal of Medicine). The authors added that Tai Chi was superior for the Parkinson’s patients than stretching or resistance training regarding several symptoms related to the disease.

An individual with Parkinson’s disease whose movements are impaired, especially when standing balance is undermined, finds it considerably harder to function in everyday life events and chores; their quality of life is severely affected. As the disease progresses, balance becomes more of a problem, and subsequently, so does walking.

Experts say that physical activity, i.e. exercise, helps slow down the deterioration of motor function, and allows the patient to function for longer independently. The authors added, however, that studies on the benefits of alternative exercises, such as Tai Chi, which were thought to improve function, gait and balance in those with PD (Parkinson’s disease), have been very few and limited.

Study leader, Fuzhong Li, Ph.D., said:

“These results are clinically significant because they suggest that Tai Chi, a low-to-moderate impact exercise, may be used, as an add-on to current physical therapies, to address some of the key clinical problems in Parkinson’s disease, such as postural and gait instability.

Since many training features in the program are functionally oriented, the improvements in the balance and gait measures that we demonstrated highlight the potential of Tai Chi-based movements in rehabilitating patients with these types of problems and, consequently, easing cardinal symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and improving mobility, flexibility, balance, and range of motion.”

Dr. Li and team randomly divided 195 participants, all with Parkinson’s, into three groups:

  • The Tai Chi Group
  • The Stretching Group
  • The Resistance Training Group

Each group had two 60-minute session each week, for 24 weeks.

'TAI-CHI' exercises performed early mornings in Malacca(25-10-07 Thursday)
A group of elderly people practicing Tai Chi early in the morning

The researchers found that:

  • Tai Chi Group versus Stretching Group – those in the Tai Chi Group could lean in any direction without losing their balance much better than those in the other group. They also demonstrated superior directional body control and walking ability – those in the Tai Chi group, for example, took longer stride lengths. The Tai Chi Group participants had better results in reducing their number of falls.
  • Tai Chi Group versus Resistance Training Group – superior balance was consistently found in the Tai Chi group, as well as the lengths of their strides. Both groups experienced similar significant improvements in reducing falls.

The authors reported that the Tai Chi benefits were maintained for at least three months. There were no serious adverse events.

Dr. Li developed the Tai Chi program used in this 4-year study. It consisted of six movements which were choreographed into an eight-form routine.

This specific Tai Chi routine focused on:

  • ankle sway
  • controlled-displacement of the center of gravity over the base of support
  • front-to-back and sideways stepping
  • natural breathing
  • weight-shifting

Dr. Li said:

“There are a number of practical advantages to using Tai Chi to improve motor dysfunction of Parkinson’s disease – it is a low cost activity that does not require equipment, it can be done anywhere, at any time, and the movements can be easily learned. It can also be incorporated into a rehabilitation setting as part of existing treatment. Similarly, because of its simplicity, certain aspects of this Tai Chi program can also be prescribed to patients as a self-care/home activity.”

Written by Christian Nordqvist