Tai chi practice may be valuable for its impact on mood and other mental and emotional factors, regardless of how much it increases physical fitness. People with heart failure are typically considered too frail to exercise; however, in a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (2011; 171 , 750–57), heart failure patients who practiced tai chi for at least 12 weeks improved quality of life, mood and their confidence to perform exercise. In this study, investigators wanted to determine whether a meditative movement activity like tai chi would be gentle enough for heart failure patients to do, but also stimulating enough to confer benefits.
Researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital enrolled 100 outpatients with systolic heart failure into the randomized, controlled study. Fifty subjects were assigned to a 12-week group-based tai chi program and 50 to a 12-week education program. At baseline and after 12 weeks, the investigators collected both physical data (peak oxygen uptake and 6-minute walk distance) and emotional data (quality of life, exercise self-efficacy and mood). Data analysis showed that tai chi group members did not improve in measures of physical performance but did improve in perceived quality of life, mood and exercise confidence when compared with the control group. In addition, no tai chi participants experienced any injuries, and many actively participated in the program for the full 12 weeks.
An important takeaway message from the study is that focusing only on the physical gains of an activity may result in a failure to see important psychological advantages. Tai chi is an integrative mind-body activity involving multiple components—deep breathing, aerobic exercise, cognitive restructuring and social interaction. Since heart failure patients are prone to depression, improvement in mood is a valuable outcome. The study authors recommended that future research focus on identifying the mechanisms that underlie these individual benefits and on evaluating how to achieve more widespread program implementation.