Serene, traditional Chinese music plays softly in the background as a group of attentive adults mirror the relaxed, circular movements of a Tai Chi instructor. The instructor leads the students through controlled breathing exercises, urging them to connect to their bodies and maintain a tranquil state of mind.

The students in this class are comprised of patients combating Parkinson’s disease (PD), one of the most common progressive, neurodegenerative diseases. PD can have devastating effects on one’s body and health, including a gradual loss of motor function and an overall reduced quality of life.

However, recent research has shed light on an innovative, yet ancient form of treatment: Tai Chi. This form of mind-body exercise, rooted in traditional Chinese medicine, has shown promising therapeutic effects for PD patients. Research studies have found that Tai Chi exercises improve strength, balance, mental focus and emotional tranquility by combining gentle movements, rhythmic breathing and imagery. In recent years, the practice has grown in popularity and is becoming increasingly common in comprehensive rehabilitation plans.

Peter Wayne, PhD, research director at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, is exploring the impact that Tai Chi can have on the symptoms of PD.

“A safe, cost-effective alternative treatment option, Tai Chi can correct balance impairments but also boost emotional well-being and possibly cognition, thus demonstrating great therapeutic potential for PD patients,” said Wayne.

In a meta-analysis of previously published studies, Wayne and colleagues found that Tai Chi is effective in improving both motor function and non-motor function in PD patients. His results revealed the greatest clinical improvements in balance and mobility in Tai Chi-practicing patients:

  • Patients who had practiced Tai Chi for at least 12 weeks demonstrated a significantly reduced fall rate in comparison to those who did not.
  • One study reported that only 21 percent of Tai Chi-practicing PD patients fell at least once six months after training in comparison to 49 percent of non-Tai Chi practicing patients.
  • Another study showed that patients who participated in a 24-week training averaged a monthly fall rate of 12 percent, while patients who practiced resistance training and gentle seated stretching reported a 24 percent and 38 percent fall rate, respectively.
  • Data suggest that not only is Tai Chi more effective in motor improvement than other forms of exercise therapy, but that longer exposure to the exercise may hold greater health benefits.

In addition to the beneficial effects on motor function, research also demonstrates Tai Chi as an effective practice in reducing depression and stress, with PD patients reporting an overall higher quality of life. When comparing the quality of life of PD patients across multiple forms of exercise treatment, Tai Chi-practicing patients reported a 38 percent increase in quality of life while resistance training and stretching patients only improved by 15 percent and less than 1 percent, respectively.

Wayne points out, “Tai Chi is often taught in a group setting, which gives PD patients and their families the social opportunity to connect to others while reaping the individual physical benefits of the therapeutic exercise. The exercise also helps with the worry that can be associated with chronic diseases, engaging patients to be mindful of the present instead of being concerned about what may be coming next.”

At the Osher Clinical Center, there are several options available to those who wish to try Tai Chi, such as one-day workshops offered by Wayne. His colleague and former student Stanwood Chang, also regularly teaches a 12-week course in Tai Chi specifically for patients with Parkinson’s.

“I foresee a growing number of hospitals in the country developing similar Tai Chi programs for individuals with Parkinson’s disease. In addition to easing balance problems, and possibly other symptoms, Tai Chi can help ease stress and anxiety and strengthen all parts of the body, with few if any harmful side effects. I look forward to the day when evidence-based Tai Chi programs become widely available and used by individuals with Parkinson’s disease world-wide,” said Wayne.