Imagine feeling so unstable that you are afraid of falling from the minute you get out of bed in the morning. That’s what life can be like for many patients who are suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
And while medications can help with the tremors and stiffness caused by Parkinson’s, there is no pill to help with feeling unstable and unbalanced.
But new research shows that there is a natural treatment that might help—tai chi. Past studies have shown that tai chi, an ancient Chinese exercise known for its slow and graceful movements (think yoga meets martial arts), can improve balance and stability in people with Parkinson’s. But no studies comparing tai chi with other types of physical activity had been done before. So researchers set out to see how tai chi fared against resistance training (using weighted vests and ankle weights) and stretching—and to find out, in particular, which might help Parkinson’s patients improve their balance.
Guess which wins…
YOGA MEETS MARTIAL ARTS
To find out more, I called the study’s lead author, Fuzhong Li, PhD, a senior research scientist at Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, Oregon.
The researchers recruited 195 men and women with Parkinson’s between the ages of 40 and 85. They all had either mild or moderate Parkinson’s, but not severe, because those with severe Parkinson’s are unable to stand unassisted so they wouldn’t have been able to do the exercises. The participants were randomly assigned to one of three different exercise programs—tai chi, resistance training or stretching. All groups participated in a twice-weekly, 60-minute class for six months.
The tai chi program emphasized slow, continuous movements with multiple body parts moving at the same time, such as hand movements, trunk rotation and weight shifting from foot to foot. The resistance-training program focused on strengthening muscles of the hips, knees and ankles. The stretching program included light walking…arm, leg and neck circles…and deep abdominal breathing.
At the end of the six-month study, the researchers measured balance by looking at maximum excursion (which measured how far the person could lean over while standing without stumbling or falling)…directional control (which measured the amount of “intentional” movement toward a target compared with “uncontrolled” movement) while walking…and length of walking stride. Here’s what they discovered…
- Tai chi participants increased their maximum excursion by 13%, while the resistance-training group improved by only 6% and the stretching group saw no improvement.
- The tai chi group increased their directional control by 11%, but neither the resistance-training group nor the stretching group saw any improvement.
- Those in the tai chi group had 67% fewer falls than those in the stretching group and marginally fewer falls than those in the resistance-training group.
- Length of stride improved for the tai chi participants by 10 centimeters (cm), compared with 4 cm for the resistance-training group and no improvement for the stretching group.
In other words, doing tai chi really helped these people with their balance and mobility! The research was published this past February in The New England Journal of Medicine.
It’s powerful…simple…and safe. If you have Parkinson’s and you’re interested in trying tai chi, mention it to your doctor (who will almost certainly say “by all means”), and then simply enroll in a class near you. Many gyms, YMCAs and community centers offer tai chi. Or you can rent or buy a tai chi DVD. Tai chi doesn’t require special equipment or fancy gym clothes, and it can be done indoors or outside. If you are unable to devote 60 full minutes to it twice a week, just remember, said Dr. Li, that any amount is better than no amount.