Bloomberg – Nicole Ostrow, Feb. 6, 2012 — Tai chi, a Chinese martial art of precise, gentle movements, helps patients with mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease improve their balance, a study found.
Patients who did tai chi twice a week for six months had improvement in steadiness that was 2.5 times greater than those who engaged in resistance training and 4 times greater than those who did only stretching exercise, according to research published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Doctors recommend exercise for patients with Parkinson’s disease, a brain disorder that causes trembling, stiffness and balance impairment and increases the risk of falls, the authors wrote. Tai chi, known for its series of exact postures that flow one into the next, requires concentration and weight shifting that may have extra benefits for those with mild to moderate Parkinson’s, said lead study author Fuzhong Li.
“We have clearly shown that tai chi has the potential to help patients ease some of the movement disorder,” Li, a senior research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, Oregon, said in a Feb. 6 telephone interview. “It will definitely help people improve their balance. My recommendation would be to build it into daily activity.”
The study is the first to show that an alternative form of exercise can benefit Parkinson’s patients, Li said.
Tai chi uses a set of slow, self-initiated movements to move people away from their base of support in a controlled fashion, he said. Resistance training is more like aerobics and uses less conscientious movements, Li said.
10 Million Affected
About 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s each year and as many as 10 million people worldwide are living with the disorder, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, based in New York. Men are more probable than women to have the disease.
Researchers in the study included 195 patients with mild- to-moderate Parkinson’s disease. The patients were assigned to participate in tai chi, resistance training or stretching for 60 minutes twice a week for 24 weeks.
Those in the tai chi group improved in how far they could shift their center of gravity without falling by 15 percent over the course of the study, while those in the resistance group improved 6 percent. Those who were in the stretching group had a 4 percent decline over the study period, Li said.
The research indicated that participants in the tai chi group performed better on movement control, showing a 12 percent improvement, while those in the resistance training group declined 4 percent and the people in the stretching group dropped 5 percent, Li said.
Better Than Stretching
The tai chi group performed better than the stretching group in walking and strength. They also fell less than those who stretched. There was no difference in falls between the resistance group and the tai chi group, the paper showed.
The findings will receive a lot of attention in the Parkinson’s community, said Blair Ford, medical adviser with the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation and a professor of clinical neurology at Columbia University in New York.
“Tai chi and probably equivalent methods are helpful at improving balance and decreasing falls and that’s very, very important for Parkinson’s disease,” Ford said in a Feb. 7 telephone interview. The study “might just get tai chi on the map as a conjunctive treatment for Parkinson’s. Medications alone don’t prevent falling.”
Andrew Feigin, a neurologist specializing in Parkinson’s disease at the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group in Great Neck, New York, said the findings give scientific backing to doctor recommendations that patients try exercises like tai chi to improve balance.
“Balance and gait are problems that people with Parkinson’s disease have,” said Feigin, who wasn’t an author of today’s paper, in a Feb. 6 telephone interview. “Things like stretching and resistance aren’t really working on balance. Tai chi really focuses on improvements in balance. It’s nice to get some actual data that shows doing those things can be helpful.”