Aug. 9, 2012 -- The gentle movements of Sun-style tai chi (SSTC) can improve the lives and boost the exercise endurance of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to a new study by Australian researchers.
This is good news for people with COPD because it gives them more fitness choices, according to researcher Regina Wai Man Leung of Concord Repatriation General Hospital and the University of Sydney.
"With increasing numbers of people being diagnosed with COPD, it is important to provide different options for exercise that can be tailored to suit each individual," Leung, a cardiorespiratory physiotherapist, said in a news release that accompanied the study.
Testing Tai Chi
Forty-two people with COPD participated in the study. Their average age was 73. Half of them received standard rehab. The others, meanwhile, attended twice-weekly, hour-long sessions of a modified version of SSTC, which was comprised of 21 exercises, or forms, as well as controlled breathing. They practiced tai chi at home for 30 minutes on days when they did not have a class.
This type of tai chi, the researchers write, is an excellent choice for their COPD patients.
"Each form can be broken down into several movements which are easy to teach and learn. Compared to some other styles of tai chi, SSTC involves less difficult movements, such as less deep-knee bending and single-leg standing, which may make it more suitable for older people," the researchers write.
Each of the participants underwent several tests before and after the 12-week study period. The primary test evaluated how far and for how long they were able to walk at progressively faster speeds before becoming breathless.
The researchers also measured their balance, the strength of their quadriceps, and overall physical performance. Finally, the participants completed questionnaires to determine if they had symptoms of depression and/or anxiety and to gauge how highly they rated their quality of life.
Practice Leads to Improvements
The tai chi group showed significant improvements across the board. By the end of the 12 weeks, they were, on average, able to walk about 60 yards farther and for 348 seconds longer than the group that did not practice tai chi. They were also steadier on their feet and showed greater quad strength, both of which are important for COPD patients.
"Impairment in balance and lower limb muscle strength are common in people with COPD and are some of the major risk factors for falls," the researchers write. "Interestingly, conventional pulmonary rehabilitation has not been shown to improve balance in people with COPD."
The researchers also found that, in addition to getting the benefits of a good workout, the tai chi group was significantly less anxious and that they felt better in general than the other study participants.
"This study," they conclude, "provides compelling evidence that tai chi training achieved an appropriate training intensity and that it may be an effective alternative training modality in people with COPD."
COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States. As many as 90% of cases are caused by smoking. In 2008, more than 13 million American adults had COPD, a blanket term for emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Both make breathing progressively more difficult. In 2007, nearly 125,000 U.S. adults died of COPD.
The study is published in the online edition of the European Respiratory Journal.