Experts have long recommended tai chi as a low-impact workout that’s gentle on the joints. Research published in 2016 in Annals of Internal Medicine revealed additional benefits: It may be as effective as physical therapy for knee osteoarthritis (OA).
In the study, people with knee OA either took a tai chi class or went to physical therapy twice a week. After three months, both groups experienced similar improvements in symptoms, such as physical function and pain reduction. But those who did tai chi had a bigger boost in their quality of life and less depression, says study author Chenchen Wang, MD, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
A form of martial arts, tai chi involves fluid, meditative motions done in unison with other practitioners. “Like physical therapy, tai chi uses functional movements to increase strength, balance and flexibility,” says Dr. Wang. One example of this is a sequence that includes shifting weight from one foot to the other while slowly raising the arms. In addition to its benefits for OA, tai chi has been shown to increase lower body range of motion in people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) as well as improve fibromyalgia symptoms.
An earlier study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2010 focused on women with OA, who practiced sun-style tai chi with qigong breathing exercise for six months. It showed significantly improved bone density, greater endurance of knee extensors (the muscles that straighten your legs), and decreased patients’ fear of falling, compared with a self-help education program. Studies have also documented the benefits of short and long term tai chi on balance control and fall prevention.
Tai chi also incorporates mind-body principles, such as deep breathing techniques and visualization. And because it’s a group exercise, practitioners often end up forming friendships and gaining social support, adds Dr. Wang. These effects help buffer against stress and other emotional challenges of managing a chronic illness. Want to give tai chi a try? Find a seasoned instructor who has at least five to 10 years of experience and is able to understand your limitations and suggest modifications. To find a tai chi class in your neighborhood, visit the Arthritis Foundation’s arthritisresourcefinder.org.
Sharon Liao for the Arthritis Foundation
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