Tai Chi: A Gentle Prescription

Tai chi linked to symptom relief for breast cancer, arthritis, COPD, heart disease


Despite its slow movements, tai chi may provide relief for some patients with chronic diseases.

A new study from Canada found that tai chi may improve symptoms and quality of life for patients with breast cancer, heart failure, osteoarthritis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — without worsening pain or breathlessness.

"The results demonstrated a favorable effect or tendency of tai chi to improve physical performance and showed that this type of exercise could be performed by individuals with different chronic conditions," wrote lead study author Yi-Wen Chen, PhD, a PhD candidate in physical therapy at the University of Toronto.

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese practice consisting of slow stretching movements that flow together, along with breathing and balance techniques. Because of its low-impact nature, this gentle exercise is considered safe for people of all ages and fitness levels, according to the Mayo Clinic.

COPD is a progressive disease that causes coughing, chest tightness and trouble breathing as a result of restricted airways.

For this study, Chen and team looked at 21 studies on 1,584 patients with breast cancer, COPD, heart failure or osteoarthritis. The ages of these patients ranged from mid-50s to early 70s.

The average length of the tai chi programs studied was 12 weeks, with most sessions lasting one hour.

Tai chi was found to ease symptoms and increase quality of life in patients with any of the four conditions.

Patients with osteoarthritis were found to benefit the most from tai chi, reporting the highest increase in physical ability. These patients also reported quicker sitting-to-standing time, greater strength, and decreases in pain and stiffness.

COPD patients reported being able to practice tai chi without shortness of breath.

According to Chen and team, these findings provide evidence that tai chi could be a beneficial addition to current treatment programs — while being a gentle and effective exercise for older adults.

"These findings may be attributed to the multifaceted training stimuli of tai chi that is directed towards improving balance and postural alignment in addition to strength," Chen and colleagues wrote.

This study was published Sept. 17 in the journal The BMJ.

The University of British Columbia funded this research. No conflicts of interest were disclosed.