Practicing the ancient art of Tai Chi twice a week helped Parkinson's patients improve their balance and walking ability, a new study shows. "Tai Chi has been suggested for a while [for those with Parkinson's], but it's not been scientifically or clinically validated," said study author Fuzhong Li, a research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene.
The new research is published in the Feb. 9 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke funded the study. Li and his team compared the effects of Tai Chi with resistance training and stretching. They randomly assigned 195 patients with mild to moderate Parkinson's to one of the three groups. Every patient put in 60-minute sessions twice a week for 24 weeks.
Parkinson's disease, a neurodegenerative brain disorder, affects about 1 million people in the United States, according to the National Parkinson Foundation. It typically progresses slowly, but as it does the ability to control movement declines and symptoms such as tremors, muscle stiffness and instability appear. Physical activity is known to help slow this deterioration of motor function.
The researchers looked at changes in what is called postural stability, which is important to maintain balance. They also looked at how the patients walked and their physical strength. "Tai Chi did better in comparison to resistance training and stretching in terms of improvement in balance and walking ability," Li said. It was better than stretching and equal to resistance training at reducing the number of falls, Li found. Tai Chi includes gentle physical exercise and stretching. The postures or movement are done in a slow, graceful way. During a session, the body stays in motion as one movement flows into the next.