East Meets West
Unraveling the medically supported benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong.
By Shawn Tucker, PT, CSJA
September 11, 2012
Research has demonstrated consistent, significant results in randomized clinical trials (RCTs) evidencing progress toward using the Chinese Traditional Internal Arts of Qigong and Tai Chi in maintaining and improving the health and wellness of our society. Qigong and Tai Chi have been proposed, along with Yoga from India, to constitute a unique category or type of exercise referred to currently as "meditative movement." The purpose of this article is to highlight the role of Tai Chi and Qigong in addressing health issues commonly present in physical therapy patient populations.
Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi
Based on a recent and very comprehensive literature review by R. Jahnke, OMD, and L. Larkey, PhD, the major health benefits for individuals that practice Tai Chi and Qigong fall into one of several categories:
According to Yang Yang, PhD, "The primary benefits of Tai Chi training are the skill variables that the Tai Chi training system was designed to enhance. Postural control and balance, flexibility, coordination, agility, strength and power, sensitivity, and awareness, reaction time, quality of sleep, and confidence -- these are the gong, or essential foundation skills, developed through Tai Chi practice."1-2
- Bone density improvements in people at risk for developing osteoporosis;
- Positive cardiopulmonary effects, including lower blood pressure;
- Improved physical abilities, including strength, flexibility and posture;
- Improved balance and a decrease in fall-related risk factors;
- Improved quality of life;
- Improved sense of self, empowerment and the ability to handle stress;
- Improved psychological status;
- Positive immune and inflammation-related responses;
- Effective pain management of arthritis and other chronic pain conditions.
Although the therapeutic mechanisms of Tai Chi are unclear, this art of movement has been used to treat many diseases. Researchers have found that intensive Tai Chi practice has favorable effects on preventing falls in elderly people, improving general cardiorespiratory fitness and functional status, microcirculation and endothelial function, immune function, general stress management and pain management (Verhagen 2004, Hong 2008).
Studies have also suggested that Tai Chi is potentially beneficial for a variety of chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, dementia, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and breast cancer (Han 2004, Gillespie 2003, Chan 2004, Li 2004, Mill 2000, Tsang 2008, and Mustian 2004). When combined with standard treatment, Tai Chi has been shown to be helpful for several medical conditions:
- Arthritis: In a 40-person study at Tufts University, presented in October 2008 at a meeting of the American College of Rheumatology, an hour of practicing Tai Chi twice a week for 12 weeks reduced pain and improved mood and physical functioning more than standard stretching exercises in people with severe knee osteoarthritis. According to a Korean study published in December 2008 in Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, eight weeks of participating in Tai Chi classes followed by eight weeks of home practice significantly improved flexibility and slowed the disease process in patients with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful and debilitating form of arthritis that affects the spine.
- Heart disease: A 53-person study at National Taiwan University found that a year of practicing Tai Chi significantly boosted exercise capacity, lowered blood pressure, and improved levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin, and C-reactive protein in people at high risk for heart disease. The study, which was published in the September 2008 Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that none of these improvements occurred in the control group that did not practice Tai Chi.
- Heart failure: In a 30-person pilot study at Harvard Medical School, 12 weeks of practicing Tai Chi improved participants' ability to walk and their quality of life. It also reduced blood levels of B-type natriuretic protein, an indicator of heart failure.
- Hypertension: In a review of 26 studies published in Preventive Cardiology (Spring 2008), Dr. Yeh reported that in 85% of trials, practicing Tai Chi lowered blood pressure, with improvements ranging from a decrease of 3 to 32 mm Hg in systolic pressure and 2 to 18 mm Hg in diastolic pressure.
- Parkinson's disease: A 33-person pilot study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, published in Gait and Posture (October 2008), found that people with mild to moderately severe Parkinson's disease showed improved balance, walking ability, and overall well-being after participating in twenty Tai Chi sessions.