Several friends of mine posted a great article from NPR about Tai Chi and Parkinson’s Disease online: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/02/09/146602943/tai-chi-may-help-parkinsons-patients-regain-balance
Below is an edited clip from the summary of the actual research article, which is posted here http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1107911:
Results: The tai chi group performed consistently better than the resistance-training and stretching groups in maximum excursion … and in directional control … The tai chi group also performed better than the stretching group in all secondary outcomes and outperformed the resistance-training group in stride length and functional reach. Tai chi lowered the incidence of falls as compared with stretching but not as compared with resistance training. The effects of tai chi training were maintained at 3 months after the intervention. No serious adverse events were observed.
Conclusions: Tai chi training appears to reduce balance impairments in patients with mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease, with additional benefits of improved functional capacity and reduced falls.
Here are my thoughts as to why the Tai Chi group performed better than the other groups:
Indeed, as the above NPR article suggests, as well as several other research articles have suggested, Tai Chi may activate nerve in a particular way and may positively affect communication between the body and the brain, more than stretching and resistance training. But what exactly does Tai Chi do for the nerves? And how does it do it? As the article mentions, no one is sure because research has yet to shine light on Tai Chi’s effects on certain nerve types and nerve communication. However, we can explore other research and findings to find out how this may occur.
First, Tai Chi focuses on engaging and improving proprioception — in other words, body awareness — in numerous ways. Tai Chi is often described as “meditation in motion” because it necessarily involves applying mindfulness of and concentration on the body parts that you are engaging throughout the exercise. It’s not just about the slowness of the movements — it’s also about how much you concentrate on them. Practitioners are encouraged to engage yet relax small and large muscle groups, maintain a strong posture, and focus on joint movements in various parts of the body simultaneously.
Tai Chi’s intentional focus on postural stability creates a stronger “base” from which to move. It also develops postural awareness through constant activation of the muscles necessary for joint stability (and their respective nerve pathways). Tai Chi practitioners and many martial artists know from experience that muscles can be strengthened and stretched to improve function and health. However, stretching and strengthening isn’t of much use if one cannot maintain a correct posture. Working on postural stability creates strength in muscles that are important for keeping things in the right (or stronger) place, including muscles and tendons that keep joints strong and stable. If these muscles are not strong, your “foundation” or base will be week and you will have more trouble with balance, control over one’s momentum, and less power and strength. Older individuals with low postural stability are more likely to be off balance and fall. This is why martial arts, Chi Kung, and yoga practitioners work on achieving correct alignment and posture in their techniques. Additionally, there are TONS of nerves involved in monitoring joint movement and stability. When you work on postural stability through movement, thereby focusing on joint stability and alignment, more nerves are paying attention to the movement, especially when compared to resistance training or stretching. [Note: Xu, Hong, Li, and Chan (2004) found that regular Tai Chi practitioners had better proprioception in knees and ankles than regular swimmers and runners.]
The speed of the exercise also involves nerves differently than resistance training or stretching. When slower movements are performed, we involve more connections in the muscle than with faster motions. That is, more of the muscle can be innervated and used used than in faster motions. Thus, more of your body is paying attention to the muscles involved. You’re also using different muscle types and fibers (in slower movements) that we don’t use on an everyday basis. Thus, more of the muscle may be engaged and more types of muscles are being used.
The issue of body awareness (or nerve communication and the strength of signals sent between the brain and the body) is important for older adults and individuals with central nervous conditions because their proprioceptive nerves and brain may not be communicating well. For many individuals who fall or are at a higher risk for falls, the established nerve connections are weak, not the muscles. Many older adults are at risk for falls because the connections have not been used for a long time and are essentially atrophied, usually due to lack of physical activity. Thus, physical activity that engages and strengthens the nerve connections is optimal for regaining function. That doesn’t mean that running, hiking, or playing tennis won’t help your balance or joint strength — those forms of exercise just won’t be as beneficial for balance, joint health, or body awareness when compared to Tai Chi.
With all of this said, Tai Chi and Chi Kung practice are not something that develop the body or provide benefits at a miracle rate. Regular practice, for an hour twice a week or more over at least a 6 week period (as in the above study), provides the benefits, not one session or a few. Nerve connections and joint strength can be developed only with time and practice. Nerve signals need to be sent between the brain and body many times to significantly strengthen the connection, especially if the connection between them is weak. Nerves and the brain are like muscles — we need to work on them in order to maintain and improve them. Otherwise, we lose the ability to balance, walk properly, think correctly, and even feel physical sensations.
Tai Chi and Chi Kung provide a number of benefits (click here to see a list of them), including improved balance, decreased risk of falls, and increased overall function. If you’re looking to improve your overall physical functioning as you age, then Chi Kung and Tai Chi are just what you need!
(To those expecting a more academic and scholarly post, I apologize. However, my computer has a debilitating virus and I can’t search through my e-library to cite anything. Hopefully, within the next few days I’ll have some citations.)