A new University of Sydney study has found Tai Chi can be an effective form of exercise therapy for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), improving exercise capacity and quality of life.
The most comprehensive and conclusive study of its kind, published in the European Respiratory Journal, suggests that Sun-style Tai Chi is more effective than usual medical care and may be as beneficial as the traditional exercise of standard pulmonary rehabilitation.
‘Tai Chi was of significantly more benefit in terms of improving patients’ exercise capacity, balance, muscle strength and quality of life compared with regular medical care without training,’ says Regina Leung, PhD candidate in the university’s Faculty of Health Sciences and physiotherapist at Concord Repatriation Hospital, who led the study.
Because it is so readily accessible, modifiable and easily implemented in the community, Tai Chi could bridge an important gap for COPD sufferers who live in rural or remote areas or who have problems with access or mobility. According to the Australian Lung Foundation, only one per cent of people with COPD have access to pulmonary rehabilitation.
The research team worked with 42 people with COPD, the collective term for a number of incurable lung diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Half the group attended Tai Chi lessons twice a week and practised at home, and the other half followed their usual medical management, which did not include exercise.
The researchers tested the exercise capacity of all participants with a walking test and measured muscle strength and balance, as well as asking all participants to complete the Chronic Respiratory Disease Questionnaire to give an indication of how quality of life is affected by the disease.
Compared to the group completing the usual medical management, participants completing the Tai Chi exercise performed 75 per cent better in the walking test and had a significantly higher score in the questionnaire.
‘Our results showed an improvement in exercise capacity and quality of life, but also in muscle strength and balance, which had never been shown in previous Tai Chi studies in people with COPD,’ says Leung.
‘Improvement in balance and muscle strength of the lower limbs is very important in reducing the risk of falls for people with COPD, who are generally more at risk as their balance tends to be worse than others in the same age group.’
The study also tested the exercise intensity of Tai Chi, and found that it met the moderate intensity recommended for COPD training programs.
‘Participants in the Tai Chi training program completed a survey after the training, and along with the health benefits, a very high percentage of the group really enjoyed Tai Chi. Even though Tai Chi movements can be difficult to learn and coordinate, patients said Tai Chi helped their memory, concentration and relaxation. These additional mental challenges seem unique in Tai Chi training compared to traditional exercise training programs in people with COPD,’ Leung says.
‘It goes without saying that people are more inclined to do exercise they enjoy, so Tai Chi could be a much more successful program for some patients than sitting on a boring exercise bike or walking on a treadmill.’