Tai chi practice may be a valuable cardiac rehab activity, according to a randomized clinical study published in the American Heart Journal (2015; 169 [6], 854-60). Finding the right exercise for patients who need cardiac rehabilitation after a heart attack is challenging, because the exercise needs to be stimulating enough to produce results, but not so rigorous as to trigger an adverse event. The activity also needs to be enjoy- able, so that patients will stick with it.

Researchers from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), in Porto Alegre, Brazil, wanted to determine whether the practice of tai chi would be a suitable activity for stable patients who had recently suffered a myocardial infarction, since studies have shown that tai chi practice is associated with improvements in both blood pressure and heart rate levels. The scientists assessed 277 patients for potential inclusion and enrolled 61 patients (male and female, aged 40-80).

Thirty-one patients participated in the tai chi sessions, and 30 served as control sub- jects. Tai chi group members practiced tai chi in three 60-minute sessions per week for 12 weeks. Controls followed the same schedule but participated in upper-body, lower-body and spinal stretching exercises instead. At baseline and at the end of the intervention, researchers recorded peak VO2 levels for all subjects.

Data analysis showed a significant 14% improvement in peak VO2 levels among tai chi group members. In contrast, control group participants experienced a 5% decline in peak VO2. No adverse events occurred.

“Only a small number of patients have access to rehabilitation programs,” Ricardo Stein, MD, associate professor of cardiology at UFRGS, told IDEA Fitness Journal. “Tai chi chuan can be an appealing alternative for cardiac rehabilitation, since it does not require any equipment (which lowers its cost), can be group-based, and sessions can be held outdoors whenever possible. Taking into account that the vast majority of patients who suffer a myocardial infarction do not attend rehabilitation programs, any safe, effi- cient, and easy-to-implement alternatives to conventional rehabilitation is welcome.

“Nevertheless, the intervention might not be fully reproducible, since it is necessary to have a trained [tai chi chuan] leader and the population might not be generalizable,” said Stein. “Whether this intervention can be practiced in an unsupervised setting after [myocardial infarction] needs further investigation. Thus, it is important to mention that this is a small feasibility clinical trial that should be replicated.”