Tai chi helps Parkinson's patients with balance, movement

People doing tai chi look like they're moving in graceful slow motion, but something about those carefully controlled movements — and perhaps the mindset they put people in — seems to have health benefits. Tai chi has been tested in dozens of studies, and the findings suggest that it can help people with conditions ranging from heart failure to osteoporosis to fibromyalgia. Now it seems that Parkinson's disease can be added to that list.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Parkinson's study was that it wasn't done sooner. Parkinson's disease, a brain disorder that affects muscle control, causes trembling and stiffness. Balance is adversely affected, so falls are a major problem. Doctors already recommend that Parkinson's patients exercise, although perhaps not as often and as forcefully as they might. This study included 195 people with mild-to-moderate Parkinson's disease (1 to 4 on a scale of 5). They were randomly assigned to twice-weekly sessions of tai chi, strength-building (resistance) exercise, or stretching. After six months, the patients who did tai chi performed better on tests designed to measure balance and the ability to control movement than the patients in the other two groups. The difference was especially pronounced on the movement tests. The patients in the tai chi group also performed better on some secondary tests involving gait and reach and fell less often than those in the stretching group (the difference with strength-building wasn't large enough to reach statistical significance on those measures). The results were reported in the Feb. 9, 2012, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

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