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Can tai chi help with COPD?

The traditional Chinese exercise tai chi can help people with the lung disease COPD to be more active and have a better quality of life, a study suggests.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

practicing tai chi

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the airways inside your lungs become narrower and less flexible, making it harder to breathe.

Drug treatments can help open your airways. Moderate exercise is also recommended to improve your fitness, so you’ll feel less breathless when moving about. This can be any type of exercise that uses your body’s large muscle groups, such as swimming and walking.

One exercise that hasn’t been widely studied is tai chi. This centuries-old Chinese exercise features slow, rhythmic movements designed to bring about mental relaxation and enhance balance, strength, and flexibility. Its slow, gentle movements make it well suited to people who are older or who have health problems. However, few studies have looked at the possible benefits of tai chi for people with COPD. It’s also unclear whether this form of exercise is intense enough to fulfill the ‘moderate exercise’ recommendation for people with this disease.

To learn more, researchers recruited 42 people with COPD and randomly assigned them to two groups. In one, participants had twice-weekly lessons in a type of tai chi called Sun-style, which involves less difficult movements than other forms. On days when people didn’t have lessons, they were asked to practice tai chi at home. If the exercises were too easy and didn’t increase people’s breathing rate enough, they wore wrist weights to boost the intensity of the exercises. In the second group, participants continued with their usual COPD treatments, without adding tai chi.

What does the new study say?

After 12 weeks, people in the tai chi group could walk for significantly longer amounts of time than those in the non-exercise group. They also had better balance and leg strength, and scored higher on tests measuring their quality of life.

To measure the intensity of the exercise, the researchers looked at how much oxygen people used while doing tai chi, as higher oxygen use indicates a more intense exercise. The researchers concluded that the amount of oxygen used in tai chi fit the criteria for ‘moderate exercise’, as recommended for COPD.

How reliable is the research?

This was a good-quality study and it was well-conducted. However, it was small, with only 42 participants. We need larger studies to back up its findings.

It’s also worth noting that the researchers looked at only one type of tai chi - Sun-style - and allowed the use of wrist weights to boost exercise intensity. So we can’t be certain that these findings apply to other forms of tai chi, or to Sun-style tai chi without wrist weights.

What does this mean for me?

Tai chi is gaining popularity as a gentle exercise that has both physical and mental health benefits. If you have COPD, these findings suggest that tai chi can lead to improvements in your fitness, activity level and quality of life, and may be a suitable alternative to other types of moderate exercise. If you’d like to try tai chi or any type of exercise programme, be sure to check with your doctor first.

Published on August 10, 2012

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