NEW YORK -- The ancient Chinese exercise of tai chi improved balance and lowered the risk of falls in a study of people with Parkinson's disease.
Symptoms of the brain disorder include tremors and stiff, jerky movements that can affect walking and other activities. Medications and surgery can help, and doctors often recommend exercise or physical therapy.
Tai chi (ty-CHEE'), with its slow, graceful movements, has been shown to improve strength and aid stability in older people, and has been studied for a number of ailments. In the latest study, led by Fuzhong Li of the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, tai chi was tested in 195 people with mild-to-moderate Parkinson's.
The participants attended twice-weekly group classes of either tai chi or two other kinds of exercise – stretching and resistance training, which included steps and lunges with ankle weights and a weighted vest.
The tai chi routine was tailored for the Parkinson's patients, with a focus on "swing and sway" motions and weight-shifting, said Li, who practices tai chi and teaches instructors.
After six months of classes, the tai chi group did significantly better than the stretching group in tests of balance, control, walking and other measures. Compared with resistance training, the tai chi group did better in balance, control and stride, and about the same in other tests.
Tai chi training was better than stretching in reducing falls, and as effective as resistance training, the researchers reported. The improvements in the tai chi group continued during three months of follow-up.
Li said the study showed tai chi was safe. It's easy to learn, and there's no special equipment, he added.
"People are looking for alternative programs, and this could be one of them," he said.
Estimates vary, but at least 500,000 people in the United States have Parkinson's.
The findings are in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine. The study was paid for by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Dr. Chenchen Wang, who is studying tai chi for arthritis and fibromyalgia, said the results of the Parkinson's research were "dramatic and impressive." She heads the Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
One of the study's strengths: Researchers could measure the results directly instead of relying on the patients' own reports, she said. But a placebo effect can't be totally discounted, she said, since the participants knew which exercise program they were assigned and that could have influenced results.