Evidence-based Tai Chi treatment

The Sun-style of Tai Chi can be more effective than usual medical care in the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a new comprehensive study from the University of Sydney has shown.

Photo by Tom Thai

By Yasmin Noone

Science now proves that the ancient form of Chinese internal martial arts, Tai Chi, has the potential to be more effective than usual medical care in the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

A new study from the University of Sydney, hailed as one of the most comprehensive and conclusive studies of its kind, suggests that Sun-style of Tai Chi is not only a valid but an incredibly effective form of exercise therapy for people with COPD, which improves a person’s capacity to improve exercise capacity and quality of life.

Recently published in the European Respiratory Journal, the research has also found that the more gentle brand of Tai Chi may be as beneficial as the traditional exercise of standard pulmonary rehabilitation.

The study leader, Regina Leung – a PhD candidate in the University’s Faculty of Health Sciences – believes the findings could bridge an important gap in the treatment of people who live with COPD in rural or remote areas, who also have problems with access or mobility.

According to Australian Lung Foundation figures, the treatment could help an overwhelming percentage of people with COPD, as only about one per cent of the population with the disease currently have access to pulmonary rehabilitation.

And, Ms Leung said, as the ancient martial art is so readily accessible, modifiable and easily implemented, it is highly benefiical for people living in isolated areas, and older people in general.

“Participants in the Tai Chi training program completed a survey after the training, and along with the health benefits, a very high percentage of the group really enjoyed Tai Chi,” said Ms Leung, who is also a physiotherapist at Concord Repatriation Hospital (NSW).

“Even though Tai Chi movements can be difficult to learn and coordinate, patients said Tai Chi helped their memory, concentration and relaxation. These additional mental challenges seem unique in Tai Chi training compared to traditional exercise training programs in people with COPD.

“It goes without saying that people are more inclined to do exercise they enjoy, so Tai Chi could be a much more successful program for some patients than sitting on a boring exercise bike or walking on a treadmill.”

The Sun-style of Tai Chi uses smooth, flowing movements and omits the more physically vigorous crouching and leaping that is popular in other styles.

Its footwork, gentle postures and high stances make it a suitable and popular exercise for older people.

Study details

The research team worked with 42 people with COPD with incurable lung diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Half the group attended Tai Chi lessons twice a week and practised at home, and the other half followed their usual medical management, which did not include exercise.

The researchers tested the exercise capacity of all participants with a walking test and measured muscle strength and balance, as well as asking all participants to complete the Chronic Respiratory Disease Questionnaire to give an indication of how quality of life is affected by the disease.

Compared to the group completing the usual medical management, participants completing the Tai Chi exercise performed 75 percent better in the walking test and had a significantly higher score in the questionnaire.

The study also tested the exercise intensity of Tai Chi, and found that it met the moderate intensity recommended for COPD training programs.

“Tai Chi was of significantly more benefit in terms of improving patients’ exercise capacity, balance, muscle strength and quality of life compared with regular medical care without training,” said Ms Leung.

“Our results showed an improvement in exercise capacity and quality of life, but also in muscle strength and balance, which had never been shown in previous Tai Chi studies in people with COPD.

“Improvement in balance and muscle strength of the lower limbs is very important in reducing the risk of falls for people with COPD, who are generally more at risk as their balance tends to be worse than others in the same age group.”

Tags: australian-lung-foundation, chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease, concord-repatriation-hospital, copd, european-respitory-journal, sun, sydney-university, tai-chi,

6 thoughts on “Evidence-based Tai Chi treatment

  1. it is good to see taichi being recognised like this in the western community as it is a very beneficial complimentary therapy for people. i have taught taichi for along time and i have over 100 participants every week and all from retirement and lifestyle villages and the participants always give praise to taichi for giving them more quality to their lifestyle.

  2. Please let me know where I can learn the style you are referring to that helps COPD. I live in Tucson, AZ. and I am 80 years old.

    Thank you,

    Roberta Metcalf

  3. Hi Roberta

    Thanks for reading AAA.

    The style is called ‘Sun’. It might be a good idea to contact your local community centre, municipal council (the American equivalent), gym, or health care centre for details of who practices it in a location that is closest to you.

    Best of luck, from the AAA team

    Regards

  4. After teaching Sun Style tai chi for a number of years, and with collaboration and approval of my medical doctor, I have been able to eliminate cholesterol medication! My HDL & LDL levels have returned to a normal and safe range!

    I teach tai chi for health in the greater Kansas City, Missouri area!

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