But these are not the only benefits that this exercise can have. HAVE recently published study has shown for the first time that tai chi can reduce the severity of Parkinson’s disease symptoms in the long term.
To conduct their study, the researchers looked for patients who had sporadic Parkinson’s disease. This is a type of Parkinson’s disease that is not inherited from a family member. They focused on sporadic Parkinson’s disease so that they could examine the benefits of tai chi exclusively on Parkinson’s disease symptoms. The researchers excluded people with other health conditions (such as other neurodegenerative diseases) that may have prevented them from participating in tai chi classes.
The participants were then divided into two groups – a control group of 187 people who did not exercise and a group of 143 people who completed tai chi classes. The participants were on average 66 years old. There was an equal number of participants and participants. All participants were in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and had been diagnosed for an average of four years. This meant that any changes in symptoms observed between the two groups could be attributed to tai chi.
Participants in the tai chi group received five hours over the course of the study, which began in 2016 and ended in 2018. They were also instructed to train twice a week for one hour. All participants were then followed over a three-year period between 2019 and 2021 to track their symptoms.
Participants in the tai chi group had better motor function at the end of the study. The control group, on the other hand, experienced a faster decline in their motor functions – including the ability to walk and balance. The control group also took, on average, more Parkinson’s disease medication to control symptoms during the study compared to the tai chi group. This either means that the disease was more severe and progressed faster in the control group or that tai chi had a protective effect on disease progression.
The positive effects of tai chi were also seen in non-motor symptoms, with the tai chi group reporting better quality of life and well-being, sleep, as well as benefits for memory and thinking.
Given that current drugs used to treat and treat Parkinson’s disease do not delay disease progression or prevent worsening of symptoms, an affordable but effective adjunctive therapy such as tai chi could be beneficial for patients.
But as promising as these results were, the study had several noteworthy limitations. The first is that the groups were not randomized. The gold standard in clinical trials is to randomly assign participants to groups to prevent bias from being introduced into the study.
Thus, because the groups were not randomized, participants may have been recruited into the group due to exercise motivation or other lifestyle factors. Another reason why some participants were recruited into the control group was for practical reasons – such as the location of the participants or conflicts at work.
The researchers recommend that randomization be used in future larger follow-up studies to prevent bias.
Exercise and Parkinson’s disease
This is not the first trial to show that tai chi can benefit people with Parkinson’s disease. But previous trials have shown benefits only in the short term, via a period of six months. This study is the first of its kind to show long-term benefits.
Other types of exercise have also been tested to see if they benefit patients with Parkinson’s disease – including high intensity interval training and aerobic exercises such as walking or swimming. These proved that benefits motor symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease in a short period of time.
It is not entirely certain why exercise – and especially tai chi – is so beneficial for people with Parkinson’s disease. But we know from other research that lack of exercise can promote inflammation, which is detected in the blood of patients with Parkinson’s disease. Chronic inflammation can lead to loss of neurons (nerve cells that send messages throughout the body) in the brain.
It has been proven that people who practice tai chi have anti-inflammatory markers in their blood. This may explain why it is beneficial for people with Parkinson’s disease as it reduces inflammation.
Although more research will be needed—especially to understand whether tai chi also benefits people with the later stages of Parkinson’s disease—the findings of this latest study show that tai chi could be used as an adjunct to treatment plans. It addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of the condition, providing benefits such as improved balance, flexibility and well-being. Just be sure to check with your GP or neurologist before trying it.