For people with mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease, twice-weekly tai chi training appears to improve postural stability, while also increasing functional capacity and reducing falls.
A challenge for people who live with Parkinson’s is that balance is impaired, reducing quality of life and increasing risk of falls and injury. Studies show that resistance training is effective in improving strength and balance; however, researchers wanted to determine whether a simpler method that did not require equipment or as much safety monitoring would be equally beneficial for patients.
Investigators from the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, Oregon, conducted a randomized clinical trial with a group of Parkinson’s patients to compare the effects of tai chi, resistance training and stretching. One hundred ninety-five men and women, aged 40–85, were divided among the three groups, with participants attending 1-hour sessions twice weekly for 24 weeks. Researchers conducted assessments of postural stability, gait and strength, functional reach, Timed Up and Go, motor scores and number of falls at baseline, at 3 and 6 months, and 3 months after the intervention ended. One hundred and seventy-six subjects completed the trial.
Data analysis revealed that tai chi participants improved balance and walking ability more than those who practiced stretching or resistance training. Tai chi and resistance training were equally effective at fall prevention, and both were more favorable than stretching. The beneficial effects of tai chi persisted 3 months after group classes ended. Lead study author, Fuzhong Li, PhD, research scientist at Oregon Research Institute, designed the tai chi protocol—which consisted of six movements in an eight-form routine—with the goal of taxing balance and gait to improve postural control.
“There are a number of practical advantages to using tai chi to improve motor dysfunction of Parkinson’s disease,” said Li. “It is a low-cost activity that does not require equipment, it can be done anywhere, at any time, and the movements can be easily learned. It can also be incorporated into a rehabilitation setting as part of existing treatment. Similarly, because of its simplicity, certain aspects of this tai chi program can also be prescribed to patients as a self-care/home activity.”
The study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine (2012; 366, 511–19).